May 27th, 2013 § § permalink
What would Hannah Arendt think about Drones, and should we agree with her? Much distrust of drones, argues Abu Muqawama, comes from the same tradition as Arendt’s horror at the ‘banality of evil’. Its model of evil is the Nazi bureaucrat, efficiently implementing Genocide while mentally insulated from the reality.
Arendt tapped into a wave of humanistic sentiment that prefigured her journalism, and she popularized the fantasy of the ice-cold bureaucratic murderer. As wrong as she was [Muqawama considers Eichmann as much idealist as pen-pusher], she crafted a compelling narrative of a sociotechnical system that diminished the humanity of the men who operated it and killed millions.
So drone operators, like Eichmann, can be simultaneously driven by scientific rationalism and by rabid murderous ideology. Um, great!
Or to put a kinder spin on it: drone pilots are subject to the same passions as soldiers in the field. But, being in a less brutal environment, they might be more open to compassion than to revenge:
in what universe does does a 19-year old rifleman who took to war directly from high school prom, who has just seen his friend lose his limbs a week before in a IED attack, somehow become an a priori better choice than a Air Force officer sitting in a Creech Air Force Base trailer?
May 15th, 2013 § § permalink
Swallows have evolved to better dodge cars, according to an article in Current Biology. They are gradually getting shorter wings, which help them fly up from the road and swerve around cars.
During a 30-year study on social behavior and coloniality of cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska, we found that the frequency of road-killed swallows declined sharply over the 30 years following the birds’ occupancy of roadside nesting sites and that birds killed on roads had longer wings than the population at large.
May 11th, 2013 § § permalink
Intriguing (and comprehensible) article on the ABC Conjecture, a famous mathematical problem that might — or might not — have been solved last year. After 10 years of quiet work, Shinichi Mochizuki dumped a dense 500-page quartet of papers on the world. Mathematicians are having trouble digesting them:
This is not just gibberish to the average layman. It was gibberish to the math community as well.
“Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” wrote Ellenberg on his blog.
“It’s very, very weird,” says Columbia University professor Johan de Jong, who works in a related field of mathematics.
Mochizuki had created so many new mathematical tools and brought together so many disparate strands of mathematics that his paper was populated with vocabulary that nobody could understand. It was totally novel, and totally mystifying.
Molly Crabapple was a schoolage malcontent:
In The Medicalization of Deviance, Peter Conrad says that what was once conceived of as sin, then crime, became illness. School kids are labelled with all three. Brown kids in broke schools are seen as minicriminals. Police detain them for doodling on their own backpacks. In religious areas, queer kids are sinners.
For white kids in decent schools, adolescent rebellion is something for psychiatrists to treat. For them, school is taken as a hard-wired part of evolution. You’re broken if you can’t sit in class.
Crabapple eventually gets a quite wonderful diagnosis: “Oppositional Deviant Disorder”. Truly, America is master of the medical approach.
April 15th, 2013 § § permalink
I love reading about how people manage their information consumption — especially when they have managed to jump out of the social-media ghetto:
I now subscribe to about 800 individual feeds, and this number is growing daily. The trick here is to find high-quality, low-volume link sources. The motherlode of good links for me was to be found on social bookmarking sites. About 700 of my subscriptions are to the RSS feeds of individual users on Pinboard and Delicious. This gives me very fine control and a great mix of interests. Plus, getting links from individual curators handily sidesteps the social news group-think problem. The remainder of my subscriptions are split between blogs, some sub-Reddits, a few Twitter users and subsections of arXiv.
April 7th, 2013 § § permalink
In China, if you have a problem with the authorities, you have the theoretical right to travel to Beijing to put your grievance before officialdom).
Petitioning is a thankless task, and close to hopeless. The
BBC explains that:
In modern China, petitioners make up a marginalised collection of citizens. They are often arrested and sent back to their home provinces. Many spend years trying to get the government to hear their case, but very few ever get any results. They petition on a wide range of cases – I’ve met a builder whose wages were never paid, a man engaged in a long-running land dispute, and a father who sobbed as he explained his campaign for an investigation into his only son’s death.
More often than not, the people doing the arresting and returning will be the administration of whichever province you come from. Having petitioners in Beijing reflects badly on the province, especially you do somehow manage to win action on whatever local injustice has affected you.
Thus comes the system of ‘black guards’ — semi-legal thugs who intimidate petitioners into returning home. Caixin online interviews one, who describes how they work:
After identifying each petitioner, the guards first approach them and ask that they get into a car, saying that officials from their home have made the trip to Beijing to resolve their problems. Most petitioners, however, are unwilling to enter the car. If the locale is crowded, like the entrance to the SBLC, it is not convenient for the guards to simply grab people and carry them away. Instead they wait for the petitioners to leave on their own and follow them to their lodgings, where guards again ask them to get into cars. Usually two guards are assigned to one petitioner, but the number could grow depending on the level of difficulty. If the person refuses to cooperate, the guards simply grab them by the arms and legs and force them into the car. “Usually we don’t hit anybody,” Wang said.
April 3rd, 2013 § § permalink
Not only is there massive institutional sexism in computer programming, things get worse as you move into the areas I feel most enthusiastic about. The light side — open-source projects, innovative startups, socially-engaged organisations — tends to be more male-dominated than the megacorps we love to hate.
One reason for this is that it’s a world run by guys in their 20s and 30s, with neither management experience nor formalized procedures to back them up. People trying to wing it are likely to fall back on their own prejudices. Geek Feminism gives one example, jobseeker interviews which involve talking about hobbies:
hiring based on hobbies has two major possible implications for software jobs. One is that it’s easier for people who hack on open-source code in their free time to get a software job
The other possible implication is that “interesting” hobbies don’t necessary have to involve programming, but you do have to have a hobby and it does have to be interesting to your interviewer, which probably means it has to be something that wouldn’t be a surprising interest for a hetero white cis male software engineer
You’ll be disadvantaged on both counts, of course, if your spare time gets spent taking care of your family or doing the household work
Because status hierarchies in geek circles are frequently about who has the assets (in both time or money) to do the coolest projects in their spare time, I often feel excluded when other people talk about what they do in their free time, and guilty because I don’t have enough executive function to do much after work besides recharge so I can do more work the next day.
April 2nd, 2013 § § permalink
There’s a bleak hilarity to watching academic bloggers defend their activities to colleagues, especially in the medium of semi-academic printed prose.
Two years ago, John Sides introduced blogging to the readers of Political Science and Politics. He was restrained and reassuring — to the extent that’s possible when you have a subheading “Do I really want to be a Nazi scumbag moron?”:
blogging is not without its challenges, particularly
in terms of the time and energy needed to maintain a site. But
blogging can also have its benefits by not only helping polit-
ical science reach a broader audience, but also aiding individ-
ual scholars’ research, teaching, and service goals.
Now comes a response from Robin Farley of Lawyers, guns and money. He summarizes:
Sides treats blogging (and what I tend to think of as associated “public intellectual” activities) as adjunct to a successful political science career. I, on the other hand, think that we should take seriously the possibility that these activities should become the main course of a successful career in political science (and other fields)
The comments to Farley’s post are, as you’d expect, more interesting and persuasive than anything you’d find in a journal:
that’s what blogging is good for: core arguments. Peer-reviewed journals are better for extensive and careful analysis of those arguments. It’s fine to have different standards, since they serve fundamentally different purposes. That doesn’t mean that blogging doesn’t have academic value, however, and in political science there appears to be a growing recognition of that. In the recent TRIPS survey of international relations scholars I believe around 65% said that blogging should count for tenure/promotions as academic service.
My own point of view is that the field became so self-infatuated with scientism in the 1980s and 1990s that political scientists lost both the ability (on average) and the will (much more importantly) to contribute to public debates in accessible language. One of the things I’ve admired very much about LGM and The Monkey Cage and other political science blogging, is the way they use political science in a way that is accessible, yet neither patronizes nor panders.
Like Farley, I’m a bit of a pro-blogging absolutist here. Not that it’s narrowly about blogging; much the same argument could apply to anything from Usenet to (God forbid) twitter. Any discipline without objective verification must engage with the widest possible audience, simply to avoid falling into self-referential nonsense. If you can’t convey ideas outside your clique, and convince people of their value, they don’t count for anything.
I’m not rushing to the barricades in defense of polsci-bloggers, though. They don’t need it: the current outcast state of academic blogging will evaporate within a decade. Already students, jobseekers, and many others are being ordered to blog. Blogging isn’t yet given much weight in academic promotion, but it doubtless will be in the near future. The closed world of academic publishing is crumbling. As journal articles become systematically available online, ungated, there should be more substantial interchange between public and narrowly academic writing. All in all, the future’s bright.