Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

February 28, 2008

Philip Zimbardo and Abu Ghraib Abuse

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:45 am

Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, is giving a 2008 TED talk where he gives his insights into Abu Ghraib abuses. Zimbardo conducted a now-famous prison guard experiment that spiraled out of control at Stanford Unversity in 1971. Wired has video and a short interview.

It is important to note the contrast between the Abu Ghraib abuses, in which a few bad guards were blamed versus the war crime trials in the aftermath of World War 2 where Axis leaders were blamed and many executed.

The United States has waged a war of aggression on the thinest of pretexts. The U.S. has caused the death of over 1 million Iraqis. The U.S. has tortured. The U.S. continues to torture. Can there be any real doubt why the United States refuses to join the International Criminal Court?

This is not a political issue. It is a moral issue. The only question is whether those who perpetrated these crimes will ever be called to account for them.

February 27, 2008

Power Structures in Web 2.0

Filed under: culture, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:54 am

Chris Wilson has an article at Slate called “The Wisdom of the Chaperones: Digg, Wikipedia, and the Myth of Web 2.0 Democracy.” Wilson’s authoritarian zeal is displayed in paragraphs such as:

While both sites [Wikipedia, Digg] effectively function as oligarchies, they are still democratic in one important sense. Digg and Wikipedia’s elite users aren’t chosen by a corporate board of directors or by divine right. They’re the people who participate the most. Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate. Still, it’s curious to note that these sites seem to have the hierarchical structure of the old-guard institutions they’ve sought to supplant.

First of all, I never thought it to be an underpinning of direct democracy that one has to become blind. The largest initial problem operating sites like Digg or Wikipedia is separating the wheat from the chaff. Anyone with even the weakest introduction to the web should know, anytime you allow a user to submit some content for your site, expect an advertisement.  If that surprises Wilson and strikes him as inegalitarian, then he hasn’t taken an honest look at humanity. Properly operating social networks like Wikipedia or Digg involves building up networks of trust within the community. To be trusted, one has to display competence, and it helps if one displays it often and consistently. However, this ruling class presents its own problems, in that it can alienate new users and creates private tyrannies. The solution to this problem is as old as the Roman Republic, and established for much the same reasons, limit the power that any one person yields, limit the amount of time they yield that power to a small interval, and establish a system of checks and balances. In fact, Slashdot’s greatest scandals happened precisely because Rob Malda and other administrators abused their power on occasion, in one striking example censoring a post criticizing the moderation system and arbitrarily removing privileges from users without warning.

In the end, the site administrators who yield unchecked power have the greatest chance of killing the community.  An anonymous double-blind system of rating content which affects users trust levels in the community with a general feedback mechanism is probably the best way to go. I agree with Wilson’s conclusion.

Digg and Wikipedia would do well to stop pretending they’re operated by the many and start thinking of ways to rein in the power of the few.

The easiest and most productive change is simply to add a term limit to a user’s power.  In fact, it is such a good idea maybe we should start with our Representatives and Senators in the real world first.

February 26, 2008

Nader to Run for Presidency

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:59 am

Ralph Nader threw his hat into the ring. As he stated, his purpose is not to win, but rather to broaden the debate. Here are some of the issues that he touched on:

  • Iraq
  • Israel-Palestine Conflict
  • Corporate Crime
  • Katrina
  • Complicity of the Democrats in the war, tax cuts, inability to pass an energy bill
  • Single-Payer Health Insurance
  • Pentagon Waste
  • Labor Law Reform/Corporate Globalization
  • Corporate Power in Washington

The whole interview is really worth watching.  More information can be found at his website:  Although, I wish one of the topics Nader addressed is voting reform so third-parties don’t punish the most sympathetic candidate.  In general, I think Nader underestimates the power of the indoctrinated masses.  They might all agree something is wrong, but it disingenuous to think they agree on how to fix it.  However, if democracy is ever going to be more than just a nice word in this country, we need to respect honest dissent.  Nader’s candidacy definitely falls into that category.  But, for goodness sake’s, don’t vote for him. A vote for Nader is a vote for McCain because of how the pluarity voting system works.  Work to fix this first, then candidacies like Nader’s will not be as counter-productive to their causes.  Ironically, we need third-party candidates like Nader in order to even debate the issue and this is the reason why his candidacy serves a useful purpose.

February 25, 2008

Christian Discusses Religion on Atheist Show

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:50 am

I can only imagine the Christian caller got a little too hyped up believing Bill O’Reilly’s assertion that it takes as much faith to believe in god as not believe. In fact, O’Reilly’s assertion is that it takes more faith not to believe in god, that framing is why they pay him the big bucks. As the hosts were quick to point out, any sensible discussion has to start with what do we mean by god. Typically in America, people mean a Christian god or at least a deity that can satisfy the constraints of a given holy book. These distinctions and oft-conflicting requirements usually elude the lay-believers wishing to argue with atheists. However, the caller does show some intellectual dishonesty in not disavowing a belief in Leprechauns. Does he go out chasing ends of rainbows every time it rains?

It isn’t that atheists are absurd skeptics. Most are willing to believe that it will take Pluto approximately 248 Earth years to orbit the Sun, the theory of the atom, or that evolution explains the emergence of the human species. However, some claims, like big-foot or pixies, haven’t met their burden of proof. Atheists also put god in that category. Believers, again, try to turn this around and say that evolution hasn’t met their rigorous standard of proof. As I mentioned before, that stands on a rail of intellectual dishonesty, because if one takes such a stance, then they should admit what evidence it would take to change their mind. Frequently, they invoke a variant of argumentum ad consequentiam, which is a logical fallacy. It should be obvious that the idea that there exists a telepathic, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, everlasting deity would take quite a bit of evidence. More than a book that people have copied and changed over hundreds of years full of fantastic tales and virtually nothing else.

Atheists don’t mean there is no god unconditionally. However, we might argue as Epicurus did.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

We have reliable ways of determining true beliefs from false beliefs.  There are reasons atheists believe what they do, but one of those reasons certainly isn’t faith.  It is telling why some believers believe what they do by the techniques they use: fear and intimidation.

February 24, 2008

Orwell Rolls in His Grave

Filed under: culture, film, media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:31 am

Google Video has the documentary “Orwell Rolls in His Grave.” There are numerous problems with the production: the music is cheesy, repeats itself, the director needlessly injects himself into the story, etc. In general, I don’t like comparisons to Orwell’s dystopian novel anymore than I like to compare America to fascist regimes in Europe during the 20th century. The reason is that such comparisons, such as those to the fictional state of Oceania, tend to be shallow and used more as pejoratives. It is not only insulting to the thing being compared, such as the United States in this case, but also to the Orwellian state, since some of its deeper depth is also lost in the comparison and thus serves as more of a caricature and template for evil.  If something is evil and bad, we should be able to make the case on its own merits, not by comparing and contrasting it to something else evil.

At its root, this shallow understanding is dangerous. American culture tends to break things down into Manichean struggles. We have heroes and we have villains. I’m not a post-modernist. I do believe there are heroes and villains in the world. However, the problem with our caricatures is that we come to believe that all villains don’t care for their family, don’t love their country, are paper tigers, etc. So, when we encounter a person that seems like decent person, has a good sense of humor, has some charisma, maybe served in the military, we unquestionably place them in the hero category.  Villains would obviously spend their days killing puppies like we’d expect.  This just isn’t true, as Hannah Arendt put it there is a “banality” to evil.  Such facts about our “hero” doesn’t mean that they don’t support or do despicable actions. They might even rationalize such actions in terms of a noble purpose or serving a greater good.  This notion that people are all something (good or evil, great or insignificant, etc.) stops us from recognizing the true spectrum of human capacity and problems as early as we should.

As a fan of Orwell’s works, I also find it insulting on  aesthetic grounds.  Orwell generally presented a deeper picture. For example, the pigs in “Animal Farm” eventually become virtually indistinguishable from their former human capitalist oppressors. It is telling then that in the 1955 animated version of the book, the CIA had the humans taken out from the ending.  The animated version plays into the American narrative of tyrants, a mistake of communism, and finally a revolution presumably ending in U.S.-style democracy.  When in fact, Orwell was critiquing American capitalist society as well.

So, with all those caveats, I still think the documentary is worth watching.  The reason is that it does a good job of presenting the various filters news goes through.  How a small collection of media companies really have a tremendous amount of power, the perverseness of their agenda and how the agenda feeds on itself.  One example is how the media corporations lobbied against public airtime for political candidates because it would interfere with their commercial free-speech rights.  This in turn leads into the need for more political advertising which is good for their profits.  The downside is that it reduces field of potential candidates to those that have the ability to use large amounts of capital on their behalf, either by raising it or because they have the cash on hand.  This effort goes virtually uncovered.  There is a bias in the media, however it is not those of the individual reporters.  It is the system.  Much like the children of Legotown, the reporters don’t question how the rules of the game are made.  If they did, they would probably have to find employment elsewhere.  Covering the policies enacted by the government is one of the essential roles of the media and a key reason for having the freedom of the press.  In a true democracy, such policies should always be in the public trust.  However, it is clear that the media plays a role in serving an agenda which ostensibly not the same as the public trust.  I also doubt that you’ll hear much about it from the media corporations, so it is worth discussing in alternative venues such as the Internet, while we still have the ability.

February 23, 2008

News Round-Up 2/22/08

Filed under: economy, politics — codesmithy @ 1:27 pm

February 22, 2008

Maxed Out

Filed under: capitalism, culture, economy, film, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 10:19 am

“Maxed Out” is a documentary on credit in America.  The documentary itself is copyrighted.  So, I don’t know how long the google video link will last.

There is no kind way to say it, but America has a massive financial establishment dedicated to predatory lending.  Why people take up these predatory lending deals has to do with a complex interplay of consumerist culture, a vast infrastructure of marketing, exploitative collection and perverse incentives, stagnant wages, and political shifts.  However, the short of it is: many Americans have a problem and are burdened with inescapable debt.  Falling house prices may just be the trigger that stops the endless debt surfing people were engaged in.

The long view is that this correction is going to take a while.  And as Krugman has already shown, it is likely to have some unexpected consequences.

February 21, 2008

The Unmaking of a Maverick?

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:56 am

The New York Times published an article called “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Is Own Risk” where they highlight a relationship McCain had with a female telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Keith Olbermann breaks it down about as well as anybody. I doubt if we will see a Kenneth Starr-esque investigation of the matter, nor a soiled blue dress as evidence, so I doubt this will go much further than suspicion.

However, aides were convinced that they were having a romantic relationship, and while they could be wrong, it demonstrates a degree of intimacy that I find disconcerting regardless of whether or not they were intimate in private. However, given McCain’s personal history and circumstances, there is a good chance that they were.

  1. Iseman was 31-33 at the time
  2. McCain was 62-63 at the time
  3. McCain has admitted to having extramarital affairs before

Again, I don’t really want to focus on speculation, but rather the facts. Ms. Iseman, a female telecom lobbyist “had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet.” That is exactly the type of influence-peddling, corrupt environment with corporate-interested lobbyists that ought to be avoided. This is exactly the type of corruption McCain is supposed to be against, yet he apparently wallowed in it until aides noticed the problem.

John McCain is the only remaining member of the Keating 5. A scandal where an obvious tit-for-tat relationship existed between five senators who pressured the Federal Home Loan Bank Board’s chairman Edwin Gray to ease up on their investigation of Charles H. Keating Jr. after the collapse of Lincoln Savings and Loan Association in exchange for over $1.3 million in campaign contributions.

Everybody has their personal vices and faults. However, we need to look past the myth and see the larger personal narrative here. McCain is no maverick reformer. He is the literal embodiment of a beltway insider. To the degree that McCain believes himself to be a maverick, so much the hazard for all of us, because that would mean he believes himself to be immune or above the influences the rest of us would feel in compromising situations and is not inclined to avoid them. His past faults would all be viewed as one-offs, issues that he has put behind him, and that is the exact problem. He would be incapable of the types of self-reflection needed to compensate for past mistakes, and would instead charge right in to new disasters. We can see this behavior in McCain’s reaction to the New York Times article:

It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign. John McCain has a 24-year record of serving our country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the issues at stake in this election.

Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career.

Look at the cognitive dissonance: “there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career” and “it is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign.” If there is nothing in the article to suggest McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career, then how has The New York Times engaged in a hit-and-run smear campaign? I’m not trying to be dense here. I’m just saying, either the article suggested that McCain violated his principles or The New York Times is not engaged in a hit-and-run smear campaign. However for McCain, both are true, the New York Times is engaged in smearing him and there is not even the suggestion of anything being wrong, even descriptions of his relationship with Ms. Iseman. It is proof of the lack of self-reflection, even in his campaign’s reaction to the piece.

McCain’s particular relationship with the telecom industry is also of immense importance considering the current “Catch-22” scenario happening in the courts regarding the telecom industry’s role in helping the government illegally spy on Americans. Keith Olbermann and Jonathan Turley explain. It will be up to the next president to clean-up the mess that George W. Bush leaves behind. It is extraordinarily evident that a vote for McCain would represent more of the same in almost every conceivable dimension. In the final analysis, McCain is as much of a maverick as Bush was a decider.

February 20, 2008

Stories of Legotown

Filed under: culture, Education — codesmithy @ 9:39 am

Rethinking Schools Online has a story on “Why We Banned Legos: Exploring power, ownership, and equity in an early childhood classroom.” The piece is rather interesting in that it has kids explore the nature of power, that is a complex subject in itself. It is hard to tell how much the children internalized the lessons compared to the teachers projecting them onto the students. Although, my favorite part of the article is where kids pick out blocks, some find out that they won, and therefore get to make the new rules. Watching the kids behave gives us insights into larger social dynamics, because the children have not built up the vast network of rationalizations and disguises we have as adults. Although, we already see the beginning of such rationalizations of status. An objective argument probably isn’t as persuasive as a simple role reversal. Unfortunately, it is hard to see that type of retrospective behavior ingrained outside an elementary school setting.

While we are on the topic of education, certain parents are rebelling against a new approach to math. The new approach seems to center around understanding numbers and their properties rather than standard elementary school rote and speed drilling that I was accustomed too growing up. The main complaint seems to be parents are unable to help their children with their homework. Heavens forbid little Jimmy actually has to think for himself without help from Dad and their work reflects little Jimmy’s mastery of the material rather than his parents. The essential difference is math as memorization of 1..9 x 1..9 and three number addition as opposed to breaking say, 23 x 5 into (20 + 3) x 5 =20 x 5 + 3 x 5 = 100 + 15 = 115. In the rote method, there is simply an algorithm, you either get it right or you don’t. With the “Investigations” approach, students are better prepared for algebra. Part of the reason for the shift is technology. Computers are better at running algorithms than humans are, so the emphasis shifts from applying the algorithm (which is the essence of the rote method, and merely hope some deeper understanding sinks in), or try to get children to have a deeper understanding of the numbers and be able to check their work multiple ways. For example, with the 23 x 5 they could do (30-7)x5 = 30 x 5 – 7 x 5 = 150 – 35 = 115.

However, this is a country where evolution is still controversial. So, I guess changing math may be a bridge too near for some.

February 19, 2008

Democracy Serves Up Another Defeat of Bush Policy

Filed under: politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:49 am

In Pakistan, voters ousted almost all leading figures in Pakistan Muslim League-Q. From the New York Times article:

The results were interpreted here as a repudiation of Mr. Musharraf as well as the Bush administration, which has staunchly backed him for more than six years as its best bet in the campaign against the Islamic militants in Pakistan.

Musharraf is facing a determined insurgency by the Taliban and Al Qaeda and a deteriorating economy. The insurgency in Pakistan is a consequence of the U.S. led war in Afghanistan.

I do not believe that this election signifies Pakistanis unwillingness fight terrorism. This is evidenced by the many people who did vote despite threats of violence and the assassination of one of their candidates. What I feel it does signify is that the Pakistanis desperately want to preserve democracy, both from the terrorists, and the leaders who usurp constitutional authority in the name of protecting them. Hopefully, it is an example the American electorate can learn from.

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