Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stealing Christmas



Somebody with more time and energy than I have really ought to put up a website for the Secular Conspiracy to Ban Christmas. Trolling the right is fun; back in my youth when The Last Temptation of Christ came out and was being picketed by religious wackjobs, me and some subgenii joined in with a protest of our own that was subtly designed to be ambiguously read (Satan wants you to see this movie! Independent thought is from Satan!). So what's with the youth of today with their web design skills and all that? America needs you!

This latest wingnut meme is so ridiculous one might be tempted to ignore the blatant antisemitic undertones, but they are pretty obvious.
And it has become pretty general. Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth. Easter they will have the same difficulty in finding Easter cards that contain any suggestion that Easter commemorates a certain event. There will be rabbits and eggs and spring flowers, but a hint of the Resurrection will be hard to find. Now, all this begins with the designers of the cards.
Henry Ford
The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem
1921
Then there is the anarcho-theocratic christmas conspiracy, which I don't think is a put-on, but honestly I can't tell for sure, so it's a damn good job if I'm wrong.

Update: OK, I knew you folks wouldn't let me down.

Here's the official proclamation.

A more succinct statement.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Google vs. print

One of last night's dinner guests runs a small publishing company, so I took the opportunity to ask what she thought of the Google Print controversy. She was unambiguously on the anti-Google side, but I didn't think much of her reasons, which amounted to:

- It's a copyright violation to scan the whole book (arguably true, but the argument applies equally to scanning web pages, so if this were to hold it would put search engines out of business, not good for anybody).

- Serving up excerpts is not fair use (seems false to me though I suppose there's some legal case to be made)

- Once they serve up excerpts they will then go ahead to serve up entire copyrighted works without paying the copyright holders (certainly a false argument; they could obviously be sued if they started doing that).

- It's rude of them to mess with copyrighted works without asking permission first (not a legal argument, but true as far as it goes. Google seems to be pissing people off unnecessarily).

- Google is a huge behemoth with a $400 stock price, whereas small-press publishers is a tiny, marginal, we-do-it-for-love operation, and they are afraid of getting crushed under the wheels.
This last point, which is not really an argument, is probably at the root of it. Publishers are scared, and rightlly so, of Google and the entire Internet, which is a threat to their business model. Publishers are middlemen and the net generally serves to drive them out of business with much cheaper and often nbetter alternatives (like Craigslist is doing to newspaper classifieds). I happen to work for a company that is owned by one of the largest publishers in the world, and they are scared, so I guess it's reasonable for a one-person company that is run out of a living room to be scared too.

Publishers are not mere middlemen, they can add a lot of value by finding, nurturing, and promoting authors. A lot of the infrastructure of the counterculture is associated with threatened old-media microinstitutions like independent bookstores and small publishers and magazines. These marginal economic activities provide a living to a multitude of authors and middlemen. If all this is replaced with a structure that consists of unpaid content creators (bloggers) and huge technocorporate behemoths (Google, telecoms) that is not necessarily an improvement. Content may be more diverse, but all the money flows to the big entities rather than the creators.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?

Economist Robert Frank makes the argument that recent tax cuts that "benefit the rich" are actually hurting the overall well-being of the rich (along with the rest of us, of course). If the government doesn't have the resources to fund public health, road maintenance, and checking cargo containers for nuclear bombs, the results are going to impact even the well-off, and at some point these costs outweigh whatever benefit the priveleged classes get from having more disposable income.

He doesn't speculate as to why, then, the Bush administration and its backers insist on cutting taxes while debts are mounting. Is it possible they aren't even good at being selfish? I don't think it's any sort of actual anti-government ideology, or they'd be cutting spending as well as taxes. Stupidity then, or more specifically blind animal greed that can't even recognize its own self-interests.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Web 2.0 -- back to the future

Paul Graham often manages to articulate what I've been thinking before I can:
Does "Web 2.0" mean anything more than the name of a conference yet? I don't like to admit it, but it's starting to. When people say "Web 2.0" now, I have some idea what they mean. And the fact that I both despise the phrase and understand it is the surest proof that it has started to mean something.
Yeah, I had the same sort of epiphany he describes. Someething is happening here/what it is ain't exactly clear.
But there is a common thread. Web 2.0 means using the web the way it's meant to be used. The "trends" we're seeing now are simply the inherent nature of the web emerging from under the broken models that got imposed on it during the Bubble.

That's an interesting thought; Web 2.0 is really a return to Web 0.1 -- more of the intelligence augmentation, social intelligence, peer-to-peer, conversational stuff that was part of the original hypertext vision through Bush, Englebart, Nelson, and Berners-Lee. A return to traditional values, as it were.





Monday, November 21, 2005

Human interface


Ominous signs: first, various neterati or whatever they are called are pointing out how Google is growing a global brain and we should panic and/or worship it.

Then, Amazon comes up with a scheme to turn humans into subroutines for their version of the GB, giving it a mildly creepy name to ensure unease.

Hm, it occurs to me that this service is sort of the converse to CAPTCHA systems. So if CAPTCHA is supposed to prevent various kinds of web-spam, turning human intelligence into a web service can defeat it, with some small cost increment. It's a whole new twist on the Turing test (or the more modern Voight-Kampff Empathy Test) -- make your mechanical system more human-like by incorporating actual bits of humanity in it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

God and Mammon go together like peanut butter and jelly


I realize I have similar relationships to economics and theology: I'm not a true believer in either, but I'm fascinated by the theories of both, and the little self-consistent model worlds they create. So I was doubly fascinated to see this debate on the nature of the relationship between economics and religion: Is Religion Rational? The Economics of Faith, a debate between Larry Iannaconne and Bryan Caplan.

More here.

Now, I thought that "Bob" Dobbs and L. Ron Hubbard had perfected the union of religion and moneymaking some time ago, but apparently there is more to it than that. The core of the theory seems to be investigating reasons why people might rationally choose to believe irrational things. I guess it goes back to Pascal's wager.

Here's a sample of the flavor:
The combined actions of religious consumers and religious producers form a religious market which, like other markets, tends toward a steady-state equilibrium. As in other markets, the consumers' freedom to choose constrains the producers of religion. A "seller" (whether of automobiles or absolution) cannot long survive without the steady support of "buyers" (whether money-paying customers, dues-paying members, contributors and coworkers, or governmental subsidizers). Consumer preferences thus shape the content of religious commodities and the structure of the institutions that provide them. These effects are felt more strongly where religion is less regulated and, as a consequence, competition among religious firms is more pronounced.
Apparently it's a whole subfield (but what isn't). Seems pretty dry, and I'm dubious whether any meaningful concepts can bridge the gap between the radically individualist models of economics and religion, which if it's anything other than a scam is about getting outside of the egotistical, individualist frame of mind.

Another quote:
However one defines religion and religious goods, it is clear that religious activities involve a large amount of risk. The promised rewards may never materialize, the beliefs may prove false, the sacrifices may be for naught. In this respect, religion is the ultimate "credence good", a fact noted by several authors... Expected utility models might seem like the natural first step, but as Montgomery (1996b) has emphasized, objective religious "information" may simply not exist, leaving no rational way to assign probabilities to most religious claims.
Uh, yeah, that could be a problem.

File under: amusing academics

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Blogging == PLoS?

I'm confused by this Slate article on academic blogging. For some reason, it maintains that open-access journals like the Public Library of Science have something to do with blogging:
Perhaps the most significant challenge to the traditional peer-review practices comes from open-source projects like the Public Library of Science, which, though their journals are peer-reviewed, are available to all readers. Michael B. Eisen, an assistant biology professor at Berkeley and one of the co-founders (with Harold Varmus) of PloS, believes that academic bloggers face similar challenges to those of scientists who publish in open-source journals like his.

"One of the main issues we face in trying to convince junior academics to publish in PLoS instead of more established journals is their concern about how such publications will look at tenure time. I keep trying to convince people that, in an ideal world, tenure decisions should be made on the quality of one's work, not the venue of its publication. And there's no reason this shouldn't apply to things like blogs as well," he says.

Um, but the whole point of PLoS is (in their words):

The Public Library of Science (PLoS) was formed in 2000 by scientists and physicians to make peer-reviewed research freely accessible online to the world.
So what does does this have to do with blogging? PLoS is a peer-reviewed journal that happens to have a different economic model behind it, and I presume should be treated like any other acadmic journal when it comes to assigning publishing credit. Blogging is not (in general) peer-reviewed or reviewd at all, which is why it's hard to account for it in tenure decisions. As far as I can see they have nothing to do with one another, other than both involving this new-fangled web thingy.

Spiritual suckitude

Mark Morford has a nice rant on O'Reilly in the SF Chronicle:
In a way, we should be grateful for O'Reilly and Robertson and Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and their slime-slinging ilk. They live in those black and nasty psycho-emotional places, so we don't have to. They show us how ugly we can be, how poisonous and ill, so we may recoil and say, "Whoa, you know what? I think I need to be more gentle and less judgmental and kinder to those I love." O'Reilly has an inverse effect on anyone with a vibrant and active soul -- he makes us better by sucking all the grossness into himself and blowing it out via a TV channel that no one of any spiritual acumen really respects anyway.
It's a very San Francisco kind of rant. Anyone who can turn Fox news into a tool for enlightenment ought to set up shop as a guru or something.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Explaining Republicans

I'm an advocate of trying to form mental models of people who disagree with me or have totally alien worldviews. It seems like good intellecutal exercise, and it has at least the potential to elevate the discussion, although in practice, trying to understand an enemie's motivations can get you into political hot water. For instance, any attempt to attribute motives other than "evil" to the 9/11 terrorists gets you smeared as an apologist. But so what. The extreme form of this exercise is to try to imagine what it was like to be a Nazi, what the hell could possibly have gone through the minds of people as they commit terrible acts? The assumption as that, to themselves, terrorists and Nazis aren't evil but have some structure of motives and rationales that make sense to them. Understanding how that works seems like a necessary if unpleasant task. There's a large literature on this, which reaches varying conclusions about the nature of evil and the nature of the kind of minds that can engage in it.

Actually, "unpleasant" doesn't cut it, it's creepy journey and it threatens one's own self, as if spending too much time in the company of such stuff can be contaminating.

Anyway, we are not faced with the ultimate evil, but the political situation is evil enough...Digby has an excellent article that starts out "deconstructing" Jane Fonda but ends up doing it to Richard Nixon and the Republican Party he spawned. Actually it's based on an even more excellent article by Rick Perlstein (in turn a review of a book on Jane Fonda -- but enough climbing the citation tree).

Perlstein:
It's remarkable how many things that we think of as permanent features of American culture can be traced back to specific political operations by the Nixon White House. We now take it as given, for example, that blue-collar voters have always been easy pickings for conservatives appealing to their cultural grievances. But Jefferson Cowie, among others, has shown the extent to which this was the result of a specific political strategy, worked out in response to a specific political problem. Without taking workers’ votes from the Democrats, Nixon would never have been able to achieve the "New Majority" he dreamed of. But to do so by means of economic concessions -- previously the only way politicians imagined working-class voters might be wooed -- would threaten his business constituency. So Nixon "stood the problem on its head", as Cowie says in Nixon's Class Struggle (2002), "by making workers' economic interests secondary to an appeal to their allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude". It's not that the potential for that sort of behaviour wasn't always there. But Nixon had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties.


Digby:
That is the nub of Republican success, whether it was exploiting the sexual anxieties of displaced insecure males in a newly feminized workplace, or convincing conservative evangelical voters that "liberals" were trying to repress their religion and force them to adopt lifestyles they found repugnant. Nixon wasn't the first dirty politician in American history, but he was the most successful at discerning the churning undercurrent of fear and anger in a rapidly changing society and using his personal brand of dark political arts to exploit it. The conservative movement of Barry Goldwater made a Faustian bargain with the Nixonian black operatives more than 35 years ago. The natural result of that soul selling deal is George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
Until we recognize that the modern Republican Party is the party of Richard Nixon and that the allegedly masterful Rovian vision of a permanent political majority is a rather simple outgrowth of Nixon's uncanny understanding of how to exploit the dark side of populist fear and loathing, we will continue to be stymied.


Me:
This is a nice glimpse of the dark underbelly of the current political situation, a start an answering the question, "why do people keep voting for these clowns?", or "what's the matter with Kansas and the other red states?".

We see here a kind of protofascism -- a mobilization of individual fear and resentment into poltical power. In this country it hasn't grown into real fascism. Could that happen? I'm guessing not, at least not at a national level, because we have a refreshingly diverse and skeptical population, compared to (say) Weimar Germany. If it happens, it will happen due to economic instability and hardship, as it was back then.

[[repeatedly edited to put back parts that blogger dropped on the floor]]

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pinning the Goddamnomometer


My ability to be outraged has more or less atrophied after five years of the Bush regime. But this Veteran's Day provided a cocktail of news stories that had a synergistic effect:
Bill O'Reilly invites Al Qaeda to blow up San Francisco
Senate votes to repeal haebeas corpus
The LA Times gives Jonah "doughy pantload" Goldberg an op-ed column.
Gah. Just another day in the imperium, I suppose.

On the other hand, Bush's approval is the 30s and the Republicans are showing signs of coming apart at the seams, so it's not all bad news today.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Teaching the Controversy

The Kansas decision to teach Intelligent Design and redefine science has been roundly and deservedly mocked in the blogs. I must be contrarian though (if only to stake out a little bit of intellectual territory for myself). I'm guessing the kids in Kansas will end up learning more about evolution than kids in an average school in an averagely sane state. The reason is all the attention the issue and contrvoersy is receiving. I have always been attracted to the learning-by-arguing method. Learning about a battle is more interesting than being told facts. And there always is a battle, at least historically. Science is all about having the battles, settling them, and then moving on. When it's taught, usually the battle part is left out, the history is a byproduct for the historians to chew on if they must. Who has time to cover phlogistion and N-rays?

Still, I persist in holding to a constructionist ideal of education. The goal should be not to pour knowledge into kids heads, but to train them in thinking skills. From this standpoint, a controversy is an entry into the field, a chance to explore a variety of points of view, a "teachable moment".

Of course, it's possible to take this idea too far.

Actually I have to give Giblets the last word on this issue.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Attention deficit

I've been worried about informational overload and generally feeling distracted lately, as might be obvious from the divergent topics of this blog (which is of course a highly filtered version of even more numerous topics flitting around my brain like meth-addicted butterflies). Not a new problem, and I was amused to learn that Herb Simon anticipated it in 1971:
"What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.''
-- Herbert Simon
Let me change the problem a little bit. Forget "attention", which is fleeting at best. I can give my short-term attention to CNN or a blog but whether or not I absorb any long-term knowledge or value from the act of attending is a different matter. Let's think about knowledge, whatever that is.

There are two kinds of knowledge: the stuff in my head, and the stuff outside. The latter category is growing at an absurd pace, while the stuff inside is growing at a snail's pace (or possibly shrinking). There is an impedance mismatch between these two worlds; transferring stuff in or out of the head is laborious and there is no technological fix in sight.

The network and the web browser and the search engine gives you "access" to all the world's knowledge, but that's not the same thing as knowing everything. What would that even mean? Too much knowledge is bad for you -- some of Borges' stories address this: The Aleph and Funes the Memorious, and of course The Library of Babel are all about the dangers of having too much information too close to hand. Unless you have an exceptional mind, you always have to trade off depth and breadth of knowledge. Knowing everything means knowing nothing very well.

Managing attention is only part of the general area of managing the relationship between what you know and what you know how to find out. The trick of the googlectual of the future is to have the skills for gathering just-in-time knowledge in a flexible yet rigorous way, and applying it when needed, and then, presumably, forgetting it but keeping a pointer to where to find it again.




Sunday, November 06, 2005

Arguing Economics

In olden days when the Internet was populated only by nerds, I used to have a pastime of arguing with libertarians. Sometimes these were just stupid fights, but occasionally they were enlightening, at least to me. It helped me sort out my own political opinions, and realize that my naive communitarianism was impractical and markets were an excellent tool for resource allocation, some of the time. I was not, however, converted to the culty libertarianism that was the rpevailng ideology on the net, which is essentially that markets are in every situation the best and only mechanism for resource allocation and every other social process there is.

One of the people I used to argue with was Eric Raymond, who later went on to be a famous author and proponent of the naive communitarianism known as Open Source. I don't know if arguing with me had any influence on him, but I like to think so. He's still ostensibly a libertarian despite being one of the leading proselytizers for a very successful form of socialism.

I long ago tired of arguing with ideologues, but every so often the impuslse surfaces again. Nowadays it's different thought -- I can bash on famous economists with bestselling books, rather than unwashed basement-dwelling geeks. Twice now (that makes a trend) I've had to chasten Steven Levitt, the Freakonomicist, for applying his deformation professionelle to get obviously absurd results. The latest was on the occasion of today's column in the New York Times maagazine, where he (and partner Stephen Dubner) presents his mystification as to why people should vote. I and many others take him to task for taking an inappropriate stance to this issue, and I point to Valdis Krebs' paper on social networks and voting as a more interesting and meaningful way to look at voter turnout issues. But maybe the best comment was from GamblingEconomist:
If millions of people vote and the standard economic model predicts that people should not vote, the problem is probably with the model not with the people.
An earlier posting of Levitt's dealt with Peak Oil and energy issues (inexplicably vanished from his site, link is to Google cache), which he dismissed with the wave of the magic wand of the markets -- prices will rise, demand will drop, equilibrium will be achieved and all will be well. I pointed out that the speed at which this happens matters a lot -- slow changes in prices allow time to adjust, rapid price increases will cause a lot of pain. Actually it was my attempt to respond to this that ended up in the creation of this blog, so I guess I owe them.

OK, my critiques are not exactly flashes of genius, more like flashes of common sense. Still, it would be nice to know what Levitt's response to them would be. I haven't seen that, because blogs+comments are really not the kind of conversational mechanism that mailing lists and usenet are/were. This is a peeve of mine about the blogging medium, it doesn't really support conversations that well. Comments generally suck -- there are too many (or in some cases not enough), no structure, no quality control, and no conversational structuring.

Partly it's the power-law effect -- the network in the old days was a flatter space, where anybody could wade into the conversation and get an argument going. Now that the web is a reflection of the outer social world, we are back to having celebreties and nonentities, although the barrier between them is perhaps more permeable. There is no way that Levitt could respond to all the people who would like to argue with him even if he wanted to.

Well, maybe the answer for me is to stop trying to debate people who are both a) too high up the curve and b) aren't really saying stuff that's new/relevant. For an amateur political economist, the folks over at Crooked Timber, ie, are both more accessible and more interesting.