Patterns of Refactored Agency: blogger compels me to post this as the keyboard beckons my fingertips...

Patterns of Refactored Agency: Not that I agree with all of it, but it's a very interesting to apply the refactorings to various aspects of life and see what happens:
"I’ve found it to be a good general-purpose cognitive tool to try to see the world with agency located in unconventional places. Normally, we like to imagine ourselves as the chief agents in our lives – making choices, taking actions, pursuing our own interests that we have identified for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s no doubt much more healthy to think in that way than the inverse – to view yourself, for example, as nothing but a puppet of external forces. But it is not so good to be trapped in a single fictional model of the universe. To understand large systems we need to go beyond the everyday model of agency and think in new ways."


Napsterisation - how to educate the world? (for certian values of 'educate')

Napster, Udacity, and the Academy Clay Shirky:
"It’s been interesting watching [napsterisation] unfold in music, books, newspapers, TV, but nothing has ever been as interesting to me as watching it happen in my own backyard. Higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup."


New Left Review - Rob Lucas: The Critical Net Critic

New Left Review - Rob Lucas: The Critical Net Critic:
In this argument, what Carr termed ‘intellectual technologies’ in particular—map, clock, typewriter—both augmented our mental abilities and transformed them. Each carried an ‘intellectual ethic’, a hidden norm of mental functioning, that might be obscure to users—and even inventors—yet which shaped them nonetheless. As these technologies entered general use, passing down the generations, their intellectual ethics became ingrained in the structures of human experience, acquired as standard by each individual. The history of technology could thus be read as a history of transformations in the human mind.
Regardless of whether or not you agree with the thrust of this article, the technology world needs more of this kind of thinking. Completely rejecting the humanities at a cultural level means that the world of technology can be remarkably unreflective.


Three reviews of Pixar's Brave

These links all contain spoilers.

Ebert, The Guardian, and others will say this is Pixar being Disneyfied. But this post is not about them.
  • The New Inquiry: "Just Another Princess Movie" on why Brave is not just another princess movie.
  • On the other hand, Mr. Teacup says Brave is not brave, and that the central character is actually the Mother, for whom the message is "don’t play too much in the male world of politics and forget your role as mother, or you will be turned into a bear"
  • And on the third hand, at the American Prospect, Amanda Marcotte insists the film is feminist.
I leave it to you to decide. And no, I haven't seen it yet.

(Why was this saved as a draft since July? No idea...)


Exit, Voice and Loyalty by Albert O. Hirschman

With a full title of "Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States", this is a fairly old (1970) but nevertheless current and interesting book. Written by an economist making forays into political science, his first point is that 'exit' is not necessarily the only response to discontent, dispute or 'unsatisfaction', and that 'voice' - aka protest, causing a stink, making a fuss - is also a perfectly legitimate response, and interacts with exit in interesting and sometimes unpredictable ways.

The book makes a second point, seemingly in reaction to a trend that was only just getting started in 1970, and is sadly now more-or-less embedded into the modern cultural mindset: the applying of free-market principles to absolutely everything in the public sphere - regardless of the benefit gained thereby. Healthcare, in the USA particularly, is of course a prominent and relevant example.

These points, concisely addressed in 125 pages, are slightly ironic given that Albert Hirschman commits the now-classic Thing That Economists Do by insisting on looking at everything as an economic transaction - families, political parties and cabinet politics all fall within his purview. That there are thoughtful things to be said illustrates the utility of this frame of reference, but to the exclusion of all others? Well, this is a treatise on economics after all. I shouldn't grumble :-)

(P.S. an interesting anecdote about how I actually read the book: when it arrived, via a second-hand book seller on Amazon, 12 pages in the penultimate chapter were blank, probably due to a printers error. 'How annoying,' I said to myself, and promptly checked the title on Google Books. No such luck - half the pages missing in my copy were also missing there, too. I checked Amazon 'look inside' and that was even worse. Finally, I googled '"Exit, Voice and Loyalty" pdf'. The first result was a complete copy of the book on a server with a domain ending in .cn. I downloaded the complete book, printed out the pages I needed, folded & glued them into the book, and went about my day. Make of this what you will.)


Seemingly within the realm of conspiracy theory, but:

When half a million Americans died and nobody noticed | News | The Week UK:
"Typical was the headline on a short article that ran in the 19 April 2005 edition of USA Today: 'USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.' During that one year, American deaths fell by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation's population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly "surprised" and "scratching [their] heads" over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.

For his Chinese melamine/Vioxx comparison, Unz went back to those 2005 stories. Quick scrutiny of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the US Government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offered Unz some useful clues.

"We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn," says Unz. "Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in the national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population."


The 911 Wars by Jason Burke, and The Don Camillo Omnibus by Giovanni Guareschi

I read about The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke on Tim Bray's blog and thought "that sounds interesting", and so it is. I'm about half-way through this impressively researched book - it's 1/3rd notes, references, and indexes by weight - and so far I find it both highly educational and deeply depressing. Every time I put down the book I take a deep breath and think "what a mess!".

And so it's a pleasure to recommend the second book I'm working my way through as a light-hearted antidote. Regaling the exploits of the Catholic priest of a small village, Don Camillo, and his constant struggles with the Communist mayor, Peppone, it's hard to stay depressed after reading a couple of these short stories.

"Why fiction is good for you" at the Boston Globe is an interesting look at whether or not fiction is morally improving. Personally I would be a lot less happier without it.

What conditions give rise to great artistic achievements? Wealth, urban centers, belief in God. Wait: What?

20120513:See update below

Future tense, IX: Out of the wilderness by Charles Murray - The New Criterion:
"Upon reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverers many years ago, I became fascinated with the ebbs and flows of human achievement, and especially those points in world history that have been associated with a flowering of great accomplishment. The most famous are Athens in the Periclean age and Florence in the Renaissance, but there have been many other less spectacular examples. Sometimes, the surge of great creativity is most obvious in a particular domain—literature in nineteenth-century Russia, for example—but strides made in one field are usually accompanied by strides made in others. Historically speaking, what accounts for the difference in the fertility of the cultural ground?"
Update: Firstly I should acknowledge that the title is the Arts & Letters Daily summary of the essay.

Secondly, reading a bit more about the author is enough for me to discount the conclusions of the article. Thinking about it a bit more, other, less predjudicial, reasons present themselves.

Assigning scores based on his own judgement to hundreds of pieces of data, it is no surprise that the overall result would reflect his own judgement more broadly. In addition, even if such scores were awarded impartially, which I doubt, it may well generate such a noisy dataset that you could slice & dice any which way you wanted to obtain your desired conclusions.

As such my posting of this article is probably a case of confirmation bias, and my update above is probably an ex post-facto justification. Who knew :-/


Phillip K. Dick: where all those wonderful books came from

"There are, in fact, numerous ways to find a trail through this wilderness of crazed speculation. At one and the same time, the Exegesis is an expository prop to Dick’s later fiction, a kind of creative workshop testing out ideas that would find form in VALIS and The Divine Invasion; the tortuous searchings of a remarkably resilient spirit mangled by years of drug abuse, failed marriages, and literary neglect; a palimpsest of learned disquisitions on complex philosophical problems, such as the nature of the relationship between identity and time; a contemporary recasting of Gnostic theology, the Dead Sea scrolls rendered as a kind of space opera; and much more.
Personally I think The man in the high castle, A Scanner Darkly, and VALIS are three of his best.


Towards a politicisation of Hello Kitty: a first look what's involved :-)

I Have No Mouth but I Must Scream – The New Inquiry:
"Why doesn’t Hello Kitty have a mouth? Is its absence more than an expedient, minimalist design choice? And does her lack of a mouth necessarily translate into the absence of a voice, as the arguments tend to go? The first Hello Kitty product, after all, was a coin purse with HELLO printed in block capitals over an image of Kitty; her name is her form, and it is speech.

Most political engagements with Hello Kitty have taken the mouthlessness issue as their impetus. They generally, through subversion or perversion, ironize Hello Kitty’s apparent inability to speak, suggesting her lack of expression is being upheld as a model, particularly for the young Asian girls who form Hello Kitty’s immediate target audience. A woman’s value, this particular feminine feline’s lack of mouth seems to say, is contingent on her voicelessness."
What I find interesting is that the whole corpus of modern Literary Theory & cultural studies etc. is normally applied to works of high literature etc. As I understand it, once, applying theory to "contemporary" cultural artifacts was seen as avant-guarde and radical. Now, one could argue that it is these artifacts that need more thought than ever applied to them.


How we ignore the long-term effects of violence on children, adults and our communities

“I See Everything Through This Tragedy” | The Interrupters | FRONTLINE | PBS
"At 10:45 on the night of March 13, 2009, Rodney Orange waited for his 14-year-old grandson, Gregory Robinson, to arrive home. Gregory had been at a high school basketball game, and as the car he rode in pulled up outside the house, Mr. Orange heard the sound of semi-automatic weapons. He remembers two distinct sounds of gunfire, suggesting there were two shooters. More than 50 shots were fired. He rushed to the car. Gregory had been sitting in the backseat and had thrown his body on top of his two younger cousins, one five years old, the other nine months. He saved their lives. Gregory was shot in the back."
The site for the film mentioned, is here: The Interrupters.


How to Read a Poem, by Terry Eagleton

I thought this book would be good to read since I knew very little about poetry; in many ways I still do, but I think I've been made more aware of the nature of poetry itself.

One might think this would be a rather simple book - I did, not knowing that Eagleton is a literary theorist and critic of some stature. The book is actually about modern literary theory applied to poetry, and is pretty densely packed. Given what I now know of Eagleton, it's not surprising that there's a fair dollop of politics too. This seems reasonable if one believes as he seems to, that all culture is political and all politics is cultural. Now and again his Marxist-Christian colours show through rather vividly, and this is no bad thing.

The book, for all it's intellectual heft, is very well-written and has a wonderfully discursive, conversational lilt to it. It was a real pleasure to read, and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in enriching their reading experience.

The Islamist, by Ed Husain

I read this book having thought a long time ago "that sounds interesting", and it was. What strikes me is how modern the roots of Islamic extremism are compared to traditional Islam as practised for hundreds of years in many different cultures.

The book is essentially a circular, growing-up narrative of rejections and turning-aways, first from traditional Islam, then from modern fundamentalism, following the murder of a student; and then a turning back to traditional Islam again.

Husain now works at the CFR in New York on Middle-Eastern studies.

Does globalisation make it harder for us to avoid confronting the moral consequences of our lifestyles?

rc3.org - Our moral complicity in China’s working conditions:
"Lately, working conditions in Chinese factories that produce consumer electronics that we all use and love have gotten a lot of press. Mike Daisey has been touring and presenting a one man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, on this subject. Portions of it were recently aired on This American Life. Perhaps not coincidentally, the New York TImes published an exposé on Foxconn last month that looked into the poor pay, unlawfully long hours, and dangerous work conditions at the company’s factories.

I’ve been following the subsequent debate. Tech pundit and Apple fan David Pogue responds with what is largely a straw-man filled argument about the price of electronics doubling and the fact that all companies use these factories, not just Apple. Mike Daisey responds ably.

I want to talk about two aspects of it, though. One is the scope of the problem, and the other is the fairness of singling Apple out. As the article points out, Apple is not the only electronics company that manufactures its products in China. Almost everyone does. And of course, we’re only talking about electronics manufacturers. What are working conditions like at Chinese tire factories? Or toy factories? Or the factories where they make buttons for shirts? The story is the same across industry in China, if not worse."

Debt: the first 5000 years: two reviews

The book comes highly recommended, and there are two reviews, one in Guernica and one in The New Inquiry, both of which are apparently very well-written.


A reminder that todays capitalism has lost its mission:

Hudson: The Neo-Rentier Economy:
"What is called “capitalism” is best understood as a series of stages. Industrial Capitalism has given way to Finance Capitalism, which in turn has passed through Pension-Fund Capitalism since the 1950s, and a U.S.-centered Monetary Imperialism since 1971 when fiat dollar creation (mainly to finance U.S. global military spending) became the world’s monetary base. Fiat dollar credit made possible the Bubble Economy after 1980, and its sub-stage of Casino Capitalism. These were economically radioactive decay stages that resolved into Debt Deflation after 2008 and now are settling into a leaden Debt Peonage and the austerity of Neo-Serfdom."


Information overload or information gluttony? Let's not ignore our own agency.

Gluttony Goes Viral - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education:

If you ignore the gratuitous slam at 'hipsters' and other natives to the Internet, it makes a very good point:
"It's the two most incongruous words in that passage that point us toward Petronius' chief insight into pleasure and abundance: "accomplished voluptuary." How can anyone be accomplished at taking pleasure? Isn't that something anyone can do? Yes, under most circumstances. But under decadent circumstances, such as Trimalchio's feast or Nero's court, pleasure becomes cheap. It must, at first, be exhilarating to find exquisite versions of the things we most want—food, sleep, sex—right at hand. But then comes the revelation that even with unlimited means, our capacity to take pleasure is itself limited. The usual enjoyments become repetitious and dull, until we can barely taste them at all, or remember how they once tasted. And it's at that point that Trimalchio and Petronius part ways: One flails to enjoy himself while the other becomes a scientist of pleasure. Under decadent circumstances, Petronius devises ever-more-original varie­ties of hedonism.

And there's the key to understanding the often anesthetic effect of the Internet. Decadence doesn't demand great wealth: Decadence is a useful way to understand any situation in which an existing pleasure becomes cheap, and it takes the ingenuity of a Petronius to fight off the boredom. That is now the case with information—the small burst of satisfaction that comes from a refilled inbox or a new text, from connecting with friends, or sharing the meme of the day. Millions of us are now richer in these pleasures than our parents' generation could ever imagine. But our capacity for enjoyment is still finite: We've built up a tolerance to the pleasures of information, just as Trimalchio built up a tolerance to the pleasures of food. Those who experience our constant connectivity as dulling should be able to identify closely with his guests."

Europe has, in some ways, reacted no better than America to the threat of terrorism

Europe’s Own Human Rights Crisis | Human Rights Watch:
"To many friends of human rights in Europe, the Arab Spring has been the most thrilling period since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Judging from their soaring rhetoric about yearning for freedom among Arab peoples, European Union leaders share that enthusiasm. Today there is an opportunity, the optimists proclaim, to have an arc of human rights-respecting countries around much of the Mediterranean rim.

The reality of human rights policy in Europe itself and toward its Mediterranean perimeter has been far less edifying. Documents discovered in Libya by Human Rights Watch in September 2011 evidenced British complicity in rendition to Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Italy, which was willing to send African migrants and asylum seekers back to Libya during the Gaddafi era to face abuse and worse, moved quickly to sign a migration cooperation agreement with the transitional authorities there (although at this writing it has yet to resume forced returns). EU governments have proved reluctant to help migrants and others fleeing war-torn Libya. The arrival of thousands of Tunisian migrants in Italy beginning in January led leading EU governments to question free movement inside the EU, one of its fundamental pillars.

Move beyond the fine words and human rights in Europe are in trouble. A new (or rather a resurgent old) idea is on the march: that the rights of “problematic” minorities must be set aside for the greater good, and elected politicians who pursue such policies are acting with democratic legitimacy."


The Judeo-Christian origin of modern Human Rights

As a result of a very interesting discussion with a friend of mine...

The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era:

Quoting from a review:
"Beginning with the controversy of human rights and religion, Ishay argues that each great religion contains important humanistic elements which have contributed to our modern conceptions of rights. For example, in the West, the impact of Judeo-Christian morality and ethics has been central to the development of human rights. As Ishay notes Judeo-Christian morality was secularized, separated from politics, and strengthened in influence by the advent of capitalism and colonialism in Europe, largely at the expense of other notions of ethics. Because of the development of capitalism in Europe, Judeo-Christian ethics became secularized with the progress of the Reformation (16th century) and the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century, finally being transformed into a liberal discourse that dominates our current conception of human rights. "
Pew Forum: Sources of Basic Human Rights Ideas: A Christian Perspective:

"The background story of how this definition of human rights came to enter the official, cross-cultural, international definition of standards, however, is only now being told. In fresh research, the British scholar-pastor, Canon John Nurser, has documented in extended detail the ways in which, from 1939 until 1947, leading Ecumenical Protestant figures worked not only with key figures in developing the Bretton Woods agreements, anticipating a post-war need for economic stability and development, but formed the Commission for a Just and Durable Peace, the Churches' Commission on International Affairs, and later the Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, all under the auspices of the Federal Council of Churches, with close connections to the emerging World Council of Churches and the International Missionary Conference. These organizations, notably led by Lutheran O. Frederick Nolde, Congregationalist Richard Fagley, Baptist M. Searle Bates, and Presbyterian John A. Mackay, among others, were dedicated to shaping what they then called a "new world order" that would honor human rights. They worked closely with Jacob Blaustein and Joseph Proskauer of the American Jewish Committee and with twelve bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to encourage the formation of the drafting committees of the United Nations Charter Committee and the committee that composed the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and deeply shaped their results. Further, they worked through their church and synagogue contacts at the local level to build the popular support for what they were doing. In fact, the more of this history that is dug out, the clearer it becomes that they supplied much of the intellectual and ethical substance that formed these so-called "secular" documents. Such data is if particular importance, for it helps correct the secularists' slanderous treatment of religion as the cause of human rights violations."
And later:
"Certainly we cannot say that all of Judaism or of Christianity has supported human rights; it has been key minority traditions that have argued their case over long periods of time and become more widely accepted. Nor can we say that even these traditions have been faithful to the implications of their own heritage at all times, and the horror stories of our pasts also have to be told to mitigate any temptation to triumphalism. Still, intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as "secular," "western" principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religions. And while many scholars and leaders from other traditions have endorsed them, and found resources in their own traditions that point to quite similar principles, today these views are under suspicion both by some Asian leaders who appeal to Asian Values and by some communitarian and postmodern philosophers in the West who have challenged the very idea of human rights."


Humanity writ large reflected in the tools of the day:

How the Internet Gets Inside Us : The New Yorker
"[...] at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy. Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind."

The difference between the View from Nowhere and stenography increasingly difficult to find :-)

The New York Times public editor's very public utterance | Clay Shirky | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

"Thursday, Arthur Brisbane, the public editor of the New York Times, went to his readers with a question:

"I'm looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge 'facts' that are asserted by newsmakers they write about."

Brisbane (who, as public editor, speaks only for himself, not the Times) referred to two recent stories: the claim that Clarence Thomas had "misunderstood" a financial reporting form when he left out key information, and Mitt Romney's assertion that President Obama gives speeches "apologising" for America. Brisbane asked whether news reporters should have the freedom to investigate and respond to those comments.

The reaction from readers was swift, voluminous, negative and incredulous."


Indefinite detention without trial: still not a good idea

Notes From a Guantánamo Survivor - NYTimes.com

"I LEFT Guantánamo Bay much as I had arrived almost five years earlier — shackled hand-to-waist, waist-to-ankles, and ankles to a bolt on the airplane floor. My ears and eyes were goggled, my head hooded, and even though I was the only detainee on the flight this time, I was drugged and guarded by at least 10 soldiers. This time though, my jumpsuit was American denim rather than Guantánamo orange. I later learned that my C-17 military flight from Guantánamo to Ramstein Air Base in my home country, Germany, cost more than $1 million.

When we landed, the American officers unshackled me before they handed me over to a delegation of German officials. The American officer offered to re-shackle my wrists with a fresh, plastic pair. But the commanding German officer strongly refused: “He has committed no crime; here, he is a free man.”


The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

The illustrated guide to a Ph.D:
"Every fall, I explain to a fresh batch of Ph.D. students what a Ph.D. is.

It's hard to describe it in words.

So, I use pictures.

Read below for the illustrated guide to a Ph.D."


The Internet is a tool. Human Rights are not about tools.

Internet Access Is Not a Human Right - NYTimes.com:
"FROM the streets of Tunis to Tahrir Square and beyond, protests around the world last year were built on the Internet and the many devices that interact with it. Though the demonstrations thrived because thousands of people turned out to participate, they could never have happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously.

It is no surprise, then, that the protests have raised questions about whether Internet access is or should be a civil or human right. The issue is particularly acute in countries whose governments clamped down on Internet access in an attempt to quell the protesters. In June, citing the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, a report by the United Nations’ special rapporteur went so far as to declare that the Internet had “become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.” Over the past few years, courts and parliaments in countries like France and Estonia have pronounced Internet access a human right.

But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it."

See the other effects of misunderstanding technology.


Android is far from open source, both practically and in spirit

Android: the free-ish mobile platform | Jethro Carr
"Whilst I’m a fan of the platform overall, I’m encountering more and more issues every day with the fact that Android is being positioned as the poster child of open source in the mobile space (with other alternatives like Meego and WebOS way behind in terms of market share and consumer awareness), yet Android is only partially open source, still relying on large proprietary chunks."
See also the Open Governance Index report.