From the monthly archives:

March 2014

The Ethicist has a problem that will interest Henry:

I am a graduate student at a state university. One of four required texts for a course was written by the professor, and the subject matter of the text is also the content of his lectures. A significant portion of my grade is based on a ‘‘review’’ I write of his text. Is it ethical to require students to buy a book that you wrote? Aren’t I already paying tuition for this professor’s expertise and knowledge?

The ethicist makes some sensible comments (scroll down a bit). I have a further comment and a question. The comment: it is relatively easy to avoid making money on a textbook that you assign to students. If you REALLY think it is the best one, figure out what your royalties will be, and make a deal with the local bookstore that they will sell it at regular price minus your royalty, and just pay the bookstore the difference for each copy they sell. I don’t think that Greg Mankiw has responded to Henry’s occasional jabs about him using his monopoly power to assign his textbook, but that’s probably because he does what I have described, but doesn’t want to undermine his credibility by telling anyone.(One alternative: an undergraduate professor of mine who wrote a rather good textbook which he wanted to use, just xeroxed the final draft and kept giving it to his own students; another alternative, calculate the royalties, and either give them to a scholarship fund for low-income students, or use them to invite struggling students out to lunch in small groups to build up their confidence – that might be the best strategy for Mankiw, given where he works).

The question, about non-textbooks. I have never assigned one of my books to a class, though I have co-taught a class in which my co-teacher assigned one of my books. It’s not that I am inhibited about making money of the students (I am but, above, propose a solution, but that when I assign texts, my aim is to have the students both understand and criticize them. Its not that I am uncritical of my own work, far from it, but I want to treat a text as something I am exploring critically along with the students, and that just seems a bit odd when I wrote it. Once in a while, in an upper division (or graduate) class I assign a paper or two that I have written, and with graduate classes I have assigned works in progress. But even then, with the undergraduate classes, I only assign papers that I know will invite very strong criticism from the students, and I make them do the presenting (this resulted, last semester, in one of the best presentations I have witnessed, in which a student ripped into this paper with such vehemence that her co-presenter — and I think most of the other students — were horrified). Anyway. In fact students regularly criticize me for my policy of non-assignment, arguing that they want, and want other students, to see their professors as producers of intellectual work, and want to see that intellectual work and have it discussed in class; both because it makes them see their professors differently, and because it is a rare chance for an undergraduate to discuss serious intellectual work with its producer. What do you think?

Down the MOOC-hole, where I have been, I haven’t kept score in the Silver/Krugman kerfuffle. But, Plato-preoccupied as I was, I did make a false inference. I knew it was some fox-hedgehog thing. Silver was using Archilochus to frame what is wrong with standard opinion journalism. Perfect! I thought. Because I have read Plato’s Republic.

“Since, then, ‘opinion forcibly overcomes truth’ and ‘controls happiness,’ as the wise men say, I must surely turn entirely to it. I should create a facade of illusory virtue around me to deceive those who come near, but keep behind it the greedy and crafty fox of the wise Archilochus” (365b-c). [click to continue…]

Today

by Harry on March 29, 2014

In one of the TV discussions of Tony Benn’s death, Diane Abbott pointed out that much of what Benn had fought for, and been ridiculed and despised for, had simply become mainstream. I’d never thought of it that way, because I had focused on those things he fought for that parted even farther from the mainstream. But she was right. For example, 30 years ago, nobody would have taken you seriously if you’d said that, in 30 years time, gay and lesbian Britons would be able to marry the person they loved, let alone under a law passed by a Conservative government. Not that anybody would have said that, because it was such a manifestly ridiculous thing to say. Congratulations to all those who fought for this, apparently absurd, goal. Today, just celebrate.
(posted 3/28 in the US, but 29/3 in the UK)

The Game of Wrong, and Moral Psychology

by John Holbo on March 28, 2014

Apologies for extended absence, due to me teaching a Coursera MOOC, “Reason and Persuasion”.

I’m moderately MOOC-positive, coming out the other end of the rabbit hole. (It’s the final week of the course. I can see light!) I will surely have to write a ‘final reflections’ post some time in the near future. I’ve learned important life lessons, such as: don’t teach a MOOC if there is anything else whatsoever that you are planning to do with your life for the next several months. (Bathroom breaks are ok! But hurry back!)

We’re done with Plato and I’m doing a couple weeks on contemporary moral psychology. The idea being: relate Plato to that stuff.

So this post is mostly to alert folks that if they have some interest in my MOOC, they should probably sign up now. (It’s free!) I’m a bit unclear about Coursera norms for access, after courses are over. But if you enroll, you still have access after the course is over. (I have access to my old Coursera courses, anyway. Maybe it differs, course by course.) So it’s not like you have to gorge yourself on the whole course in a single week.

We finished up the Plato portion of the course with Glaucon’s challenge, some thoughts about the game theory and the psychology of justice.

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. (358e-9a)

So I whipped up some appropriate graphics (click for larger). [click to continue…]

Journalism and Astroturfing

by Henry on March 27, 2014

Back when Nick Confessore broke the Tech Central Station scandal, another journalist wrote a “very good piece”:http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/–98649 about the problems that you got when journalism merged into astroturfing.

bq. For years — literally years — I’ve been writing about Astroturf organizing and that trendsetting operation in the trade, DCI — home of that Johny Appleseed of the plastic and the green, Tom Synhorst. Simply put, Astroturf organizers are in the business of creating phony grassroots support, or rather the appearance of grassroots support, for this or that cause. You got the money and the cause? They’ll bring the front groups, the push-polls, the oped payola, you name it. …The secret of ‘turf is a simple one. Advertisements and paid spokesman may influence us to some degree. We hear their opinions, see them on TV and such. But because they’re paid, because they’re essentially advertisements, we also tend to tune them out, or at least bracket them off in our minds. … For years, the trendsetter in Astroturf has been DCI. And a couple days ago, if you were watching really closely, a tiny sentence changed on an out-of-the-way page on the TechCentralStation website. The sentence that read … “Tech Central Station is published by Tech Central Station, L.L.C.” now reads … “Tech Central Station is published by DCI Group, L.L.C.” It wasn’t an accident. It was because this article — ‘Meet the Press’ by Nick Confessore — was about to be published by The Washington Monthly.

That journalist was Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo. Today, as part of its “very cool new section … which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America,” Talking Points Memo published this piece about “the data sharing effort to cure cancer.” [click to continue…]

Anyone Remember Tech Central Station?

by Henry on March 27, 2014

“Josh Marshall”:http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/introducing-idealab-impact tells us that he has wonderful news.

bq. Today I’m really excited to announce that we’ve launched a very cool new section to our popular Idea Lab vertical called Idea Lab: Impact, which is being sponsored by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. I’ve wanted to take Idea Lab in this direction for some time. Ideal Lab focuses science, cutting edge technology, the tech industry and the economics, policy and politics that surrounds those issues and sometimes on the gizmos we all use everyday. Idea Lab: Impact will have a different focus. How is science and applied technology affecting real human lives? How is it impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations of the 21st century – whether that’s in subsaharan Africa or Appalachia or in congested great cities of the world. Basically, how is and how can science and technology change the lives of people in their every day lives – not only with their gadgets and not only for people who command great wealth, but real world impacts for everyone.

People who’ve been blogging as long as I have may remember another website with PHrMA funding which set out to tell us about the awesome innovating power of innovative innovation, the unlamented Tech Central Station. TCS “dished out money to Glenn Reynolds”:https://crookedtimber.org/2003/11/20/flack-central-station/ and other bullshit merchants in the marketplace of ideas to provide cover for a whole variety of “unsalubrious corporate agendas”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2003/0312.confessore.html. Josh Marshall isn’t Glenn Reynolds – the sponsorship is public and I imagine that there’ll be some quality control. But still, PhRMA’s agenda on innovation involves some very, very shitty stuff indeed. There are a whole bunch of big sleazy lobby groups on Capitol Hill, but PhRMA is arguably the sleaziest.

And in that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except maybe losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on “shovelling”:http://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/03/13/tpp-lobby/ “insanely demanding”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2013/11/18/the-united-states-is-isolated-in-the-trans-pacific-partnership-negotiations/ IP requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is “impacting high drug prices”:http://pharmacycheckerblog.com/pharmas-legal-hypocrisy-defending-high-drug-prices? What are the “cutting edge techniques”:http://www.economist.com/blogs/schumpeter/2014/01/new-drug-war-continued in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa (with the lobbying help of James Glassman, whose name devoted readers may recognize from previous episodes of sponsored hackery like, well … Tech Central Station). Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

Update – see the comments below for responses from and debate with Josh Marshall, and “this follow-up post”:https://crookedtimber.org/2014/03/27/journalism-and-astroturfing/ for more discussion.

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?

Silver vs Krugman

by Kieran Healy on March 26, 2014

Nate Silver’s relaunched [FiveThirtyEight](http://fivethirtyeight.com) 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](http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/data-as-slogan-data-as-substance/) “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](http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/for-columnist-a-change-of-tone/) with an article titled, in true Times fashion, “[For Columnist, a Change of Tone](http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/for-columnist-a-change-of-tone/)”.

[click to continue…]

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…]

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.

bq. 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…]

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).

[click to continue…]

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…]

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…]

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).
[click to continue…]

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.
[click to continue…]