From the monthly archives:

December 2013

Affluenza As Liar’s Paradox

by John Holbo on December 16, 2013

I suppose you’ve heard that a kid got off by pleading ‘affluenza’. It just occurred to me it’s a Liar’s Paradox (and a travesty, of course.) The kid, through no fault of his own, falsely believed rich people can do stuff like this without suffering serious consequences. It turns out this false belief is true (hey, this is still America.) But obviously having a true belief is not going to keep you out of prison. (There’s no such thing as the sanity defense.) So he has to go to prison. So his belief is false, and he doesn’t have to go to prison. So his belief is true, etc., etc.

It’s kind of like the Paradox of the Court.

You can check out any time you want, but …

by John Holbo on December 16, 2013

The ads Google serves up when you are searching for philosophy terms are often a bit odd.


The service is iffy, the staff are surly, but 80% off is pretty good! What’s the alternative, when you get right down to it?

Not from a parody account, it would appear:



by Belle Waring on December 15, 2013

Sooooo, the youngs. you may have heard they like Justin Beiber or Rhianna or something. They don’t. They like computer constructs, only one of which is human, and we hear her voice only, and anyway there is some debate about whether she’s canon. Vocaloids! The original technology was invented by Kenmochi Hideki at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain in 2000. Backed by the Yamaha Corporation, it developed the software into the commercial product “Vocaloid.” (ボーカロイド Bōkaroido). (This product exists separately from the Vocaloids I’m talking about and is used to generate back-up vocals and other things like that in ordinary pop songs). The most popular is naturally 01, Hatsune Miku. You can even see her perform live! (You should really watch this–it’s not clear quite how bizarre the scene is till partway through.) Her ‘voice’ is compressed into the upper range of human hearing, and beyond what any human could sing. But it’s not merely a person’s voice sped up; it’s constructed (though some samples were taken from a Japanese actress).
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Writing in The New Republic today, Michael Kazin issues a sharp attack on the BDS movement, particularly the recent vote of the American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions. (That decision is now being voted upon by the wider membership of the ASA.)

Kazin levels two charges against the boycott movement. First, it is inconsistent: why single out Israel when there are other human rights violators like China and Russia that could just as easily be targeted for an academic boycott? Second, it is ineffective: the boycott movement is “quite unlikely to change anyone’s minds or, for that matter, Israeli policy.” It is a form of theater, professors playing politics.

Kazin contrasts the boycott movement of self-righteous, divisive, “flashy” poseurs with what he calls “a larger and more practical academic left.” That left is engaged in movements for economic justice on campuses across the country. It campaigns for a living wage for university workers and union rights for adjuncts; it works against sweatshop labor in Bangladesh and high student debt at home.

Beyond the justice of their cause, what attracts Kazin to this academic left is that it practices a version of what Michael Walzer calls connected criticism. “They ‘challenge the leaders, the conventions, the ritual practices of a particular society…in the name of values recognized and shared in the same society.’” While “one left talks about something it calls ‘American Studies’; the other actually practices it.”

Kazin’s first charge—inconsistency and double-standards—puzzles me. [click to continue…]

Why TPP Counts

by Henry Farrell on December 13, 2013

“Paul Krugman yesterday:”:

I’ve been getting a fair bit of correspondence wondering why I haven’t written about the negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership, which many of my correspondents and commenters regard as something both immense and sinister. The answer is that I’ve been having a hard time figuring out why this deal is especially important. … The big talk about TPP isn’t that silly. But my starting point for things like this is that most conventional barriers to trade — tariffs, import quotas, and so on — are already quite low, so that it’s hard to get big effects out of lowering them still further. The deal currently being negotiated involves only 12 countries, several of which already have free trade agreements with each other. It’s roughly, though not exactly, the TPP11 scenario analyzed by Petri et al (pdf). They’re pro-TPP, and in general pro-liberalization, yet even so they can’t get big estimates of gains from that scenario — only around 0.1 percent of GDP. And that’s with a model that includes a lot of non-standard effects.

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Sorting Hat’s Gotta Sort

by Belle Waring on December 13, 2013

OK everyone, important moral questions here! Set your trifling trolley tracks and trickery to one side! IF you were set under the Sorting Hat in Hogwart’s Academy for Witchcraft and Wizardry, would you be a Hufflepuff, a Slytherin, a Ravenclaw, or a Gryffindor? Now, it’s important to remember that the books are all about a bunch of Gryffindors who save the world a British boarding school from evil. And that Ms. Rowling, though awesome in many many ways, suffers from world-building problems in others (she is free to tell me my 7-book series, which unites all the children of the world in the love of reading, is conceptually flawed as well.)

There are larger problems, such as the eensy-weensy “er, not to Godwin your whole series, and I know your evil wizard from the 30s backstory was going there, but, um, why aren’t wizards ruling the world, with Voldemort having a continental empire, full of Muggles whom he has shuffling off, of their own accord, under the imperius curse, quite horribly with no need for guards or jailers or even wizards to construct the camps…?” Naturally in a book for children one would put it more, “why aren’t wizards trying with a bit more of a ‘can-do spirit’ to take over the world, I wonder?” Setting that aside, within Hogwart’s itself: we get Cedric Diggory to remember, and he’s super-hot and everything in a pale, unhealthy way, but otherwise, Draco Malfoy’s initial pronouncement that he’d rather not be in the school at all than be a Hufflepuff is not really gainsaid, leaving you with the impression that they are a bunch of morons. Not so! The eventual TOTAL FAIL fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, while written in some wiki fashion by libertarians, or possibly by the character Randy in Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (which some of you may have heard of from Stephenson-quoter-kun) has some very good features (I realize it does not sound at all plausible when I have laid it out like that but it really does have its moments). Fine, technically it’s written by the Less Wrong people. Waaaay different.
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Dead to Rights

by Henry Farrell on December 11, 2013

Jillian York has a “piece”: in the new _Democracy_ which starts by criticizing my earlier article on tech intellectuals, before going on to say many good things of her own. As she notes:

If all you had to go by was Farrell’s piece, your image of the tech intellectual would be of a mid-to-late-career male, likely occupying the world of academia, with one foot deep in Silicon Valley. Farrell’s essay is conspicuously missing tech intellectuals of a certain stripe—namely, women. Apart from Rebecca MacKinnon, whose work is revered but whose profile was already prominent due to her prior career in journalism, Farrell fails to recognize the valuable and often-dissenting contributions made by women technology intellectuals.

… Even in areas where both men and women have something to say, men somehow crowd out the women in the popular discourse. In his piece, Farrell looks beyond pop-culture tech intellectualism and into the spaces where the dark side of technology is being debated. Evgeny Morozov is surely the best-known voice on the subject (and Farrell spends a lot of time on him). Meanwhile, only a fraction of the publicity goes to prominent women like MacKinnon (whom he mentions but doesn’t discuss) as well as emerging voices such as lawyers Marcia Hofmann and Jennifer Granick, academic Biella Coleman, and journalist Quinn Norton who offer a look at the digital threats facing the world today. When it comes to the intersection of technology and policy—the space inhabited by Larry Lessig—women like Pamela Samuelson, Susan Crawford, Latanya Sweeney, and Kate Crawford provide valuable insights through their public speaking and writing. And in the mainstream media, women like The New York Times’s Jenna Wortham, The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin, and Forbes’s Kashmir Hill assume the role of public intellectual when, for example, they dissect the surveillance state or the ways in which large tech corporations track their customers. And yet when one thinks of a tech intellectual, a white male is invariably the image that comes to mind.

Jillian is absolutely right. I can make two pleas in mitigation – that the article did, acknowledge, in passing, the overwhelming white-maleness of the dominant tech intellectuals, and that I did apologize in a “follow up blog post”: for not giving MacKinnon’s excellent book the central role it deserved. But they are at best pleas in mitigation. As an explanation – but certainly not as an excuse – I only realized after the piece had been published (and I started getting well deserved grief on Twitter) that my operating definition of a tech intellectual _was_ one which took a certain self-referential status hierarchy (in which men have tended systematically to do better than women) as a given. As a first approximation, a proper discussion would have looked at how this definition of who ‘counts’ as a tech intellectual is itself part of a tacit power dynamic. It would then have gone on to look at how this and other definitions are being contested between different groups with different definitions, and used this as a springboard for a much broader discussion, which would have included many of the women that Jillian mentions, as well as many other people too. If I’d tried to do this (and obviously, I would surely still have gotten lots of things wrong, opened myself up to useful criticism and pushback etc) I think it would have been a better and more useful article. I’m sorry that I didn’t – but I’m very glad that someone else has started this broader conversation (and done a much better job of it than I ever could have).

Brother, that’s socialism. You know it is.

by Eric on December 10, 2013

The Guardian carries David Simon’s remarks on the “horror show” that is modern America. These were, evidently, impromptu comments, so no fair, I guess, critiquing them too closely. But it’s hard not to note that Simon has lumped in “I’m not a Marxist but” with the other unpersuasive disclaimers, “I’m not a feminist but” and “I’m not a racist but”.

The political landmarks are implicit in his dates – 1980 was when things began to go seriously wrong, after having taken a turn for the better in 1932.
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Domestic Helpers

by Belle Waring on December 10, 2013

The foreign workers in Singapore are divided by gender into two tasks and two entirely different ways of life. I talked below about the men, who do mainly construction, but also work on the oil refineries off the south coast. Women who are guest workers almost all work as domestic helpers, who live with the family for whom they work, and do a variety of tasks: cleaning house, cooking, taking care of children, taking care of elderly or disabled family members, washing cars, shopping at the wet market for fresh food like fish and tofu and eggs and fruit and vegetables, shopping at the grocery store for rice and noodles and frozen chapati and Marshmallow Fluff, etc. etc. Most are from the Philippines, but many are from Indonesia and some from Myanmar or Thailand–some must be from mainland China but I feel I never hear of them. Expats like me would hire them if they were from Beijing and spoke even rudimentary English, because then they could help our children better their Mandarin. Women from the Philippines are paid more, because they are likelier to speak better English and be better educated (not so uncommonly with a post high-school degree, like our first helper, who worked for us for nine years.) They are also paid more because the government of the Philippines has negotiated a minimum wage for them, as I understand it. Indonesian helpers are sometimes 18-year-old girls who have literally come straight from a village where they lived in a house with a packed earth floor, and then they are screamed at because they didn’t use the right setting on the washing machine. They go through training courses paid for by the maid agency, allegedly. I think this is more a spurious reason for the agency to make the fee paid by the workers higher (as in many places, the women often pay a multiple of their eventual monthly salary to the Indonesian agency that gets them a job in Singapore.) The government of Singapore requires employers of helpers to pay a levy of–mmm–$380? (One of those convenient internet banking things). Domestic helpers are now guaranteed one day off a week but only if contracts were signed in 2013; previously Filipina workers were guaranteed one day off a month–oooh, lavish innit–and workers from Indonesia and Myanmar…none.
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In yesterday’s New York Times, Robert Pear reports on a little known fact about Obamacare: the insurance packages available on the federal exchange have very high deductibles. Enticed by the low premiums, people find out that they’re screwed on the deductibles, and the co-pays, the out-of-network charges, and all the different words and ways the insurance companies have come up with to hide the fact that you’re paying through the nose. [click to continue…]

Riot In Singapore

by Belle Waring on December 9, 2013

There was a truly unprecedented riot in Singapore’s Little India neighborhood last night. (Video report from the BBC, Channel News Asia, Al Jazeera’s good report.) Our family just moved house, out to the wilds of Bukit Batok (a lovely apartment, actually, next to the Bukit Gombak MRT). Up till October, though, we were living right up the road from the spot where it took place, like 700m away; we would have been able to hear the yelling no question, and the bus exploding with what I imagine would have been rather startling ease. The riot started when a private bus, driven by a Singaporean, struck and killed an Indian worker while backing up. The bus driver was injured in the riot, and the bus itself destroyed completely. There is video of the windshield being smashed, and later footage of the bus completely aflame, suddenly punctuated by the gas tank bursting. Ambulances and, later, police cars (?!?!?! there aren’t enough interrobangs to express my feelings about typing this sentence) were also turned over and torched. A number of policemen were injured in the riot, as were some rioters, but the police never fired on the crowd, and got things under control within two hours, and happily no one else died. The cops were able to get there in a hurry because the Tanglin Police Post (bigger than a station, and more important) is about 500m away. They’ve had a big photo on one of their recruiting ads for ages, on a banner on the side of the building, that shows a bunch of ethnically diverse police officers armed with riot gear and huge plastic shields. I used to think, whenever I rode past in the taxi, so exhausted from work and in terrible pain, at the end of a thirty minute drive, with my head fallen to one side and my cheekbone pressed flat on the glass like skinless chicken breast against the cold plastic in the butcher’s section, “well, they ain’t never going to get the chance to do that.”
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The Trouble With Obamacare

by John Holbo on December 8, 2013

Picture this:

The emperor has hipster garb, but underneath he’s just another Commissar Squaresville.

This is such, such a great idea. (So long as you don’t ruin it by casting Obama as Hipster/Squaresville. Sheesh. I’m thinking – I dunno – Travolta for the film.)

Our team of moderate, sensible heroes thinks they’re in yet another scrap with The Hipster Emperor. They know how to handle him! He’s a B-list villain, if there ever was one. But then, the big reveal! It’s actually Commissar Squaresville in disguise (last seen in iss. #57. – ed.)! Much more dangerous! And you can’t fight Commissar Squaresville with the kinds of techniques you would use to fight The Hipster Emperor! They are so very opposite in terms of strengths and weaknesses! Will our heroes recover before the Commissar banishes them, forever, to the Nowheresville Zone, an alternate dimension to which stylistic dissidents are consigned?

And then the final, final reveal: it isn’t the original Commissar Squaresville (who really did die in issue #57.) It’s a new one. In fact, there are thousands! Can our heroes turn the tables in time, banishing the villains themselves to the Nowheresville Zone, thereby keeping the world safe for people who don’t want to be either too hip or too square, but sort of in the middle?

As Steyn wisely observe at the end of this column – which is about the dignity of work – “it’s hard to be visionary if you’re pointing in the wrong direction.”

How To Dance To Radiohead

by John Holbo on December 7, 2013

Many thanks to commenter speranza for so kindly constructing the instructional dance video I lazily requested. Really it works out wonderfully. (See earlier thread for minor musicological analysis.)

Mandela sanitized

by Chris Bertram on December 6, 2013

The great Mandela is dead. A political prisoner for 27 years, a courageous fighter against racism and injustice, and finally a great statesman. There is much to remember there and much to mourn. Those who suffered under apartheid, the exiles, those who were active in solidarity overseas: all will have their memories of the struggle. Some of their voices will be heard. But sadly, they have to share a stage with the official voices of commemoration: politicians and others who cared little for the ANC or who actively opposed it. In the UK it is sickening to hear eulogies from the braying Tories, the Bullingdon-club types and ex-members of the Federation of Conservative Students who sang “hang Nelson Mandela” in the 1980s. No doubt, in the US, there will be some prominent Reaganites who utter similar word of appreciation. There’s an implicit narrative emerging that everyone recognized his greatness after 1990. But this isn’t so. The warbloggers and Tea Partiers (and their followers in the UK) were vilifying him when he criticized US policy under George W. Bush or said something on Palestine that deviated from the standard US-media line. Just as with Martin Luther King, we are witnessing the invention of a sanitized version of the man, focused on reconciliation with those who hated him – and who still hate those like him – and suppressing his wider commitment to the fight against social and global injustice.