Friday, January 29, 2010

"As soon as a celebrity walks through a naked machine, some creep will want to save the picture and send it to the tabloids."

Jeffrey Rosen argues that the new airport screening device invades our privacy without actually preventing terrorism.

He describes his chance encounter with one of the machines:

Last summer, I watched a fellow passenger at Washington’s Reagan National Airport as he was selected to go through a newly installed full-body scanner. These machines--there are now 40 of them spread across 19 U.S. airports--permit officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to peer through a passenger’s clothing in search of explosives and weapons. On the instructions of a security officer, the passenger stepped into the machine and held his arms out in a position of surrender, as invisible millimeter waves surrounded his body. Although he probably didn’t know it, TSA officials in a separate room were staring at a graphic, anatomically correct image of his naked body. When I asked the TSA screener whether the passenger’s face was blurred, he replied that he couldn’t say. But, as I turned to catch my flight, the official blurted, “Someone ought to do something about those machines--it’s like we don’t have any privacy in this country anymore!”
The real problem is that there's no reason to assume that the violation described in the heading would be done only to celebrities.

UPDATE: It's already happened.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Live-blogging President Obama's 2010 State of the Union speech

Here are some other people who'll be live-blogging:

Jon Cohn (of The New Republic, on Twitter)

Chris Cillizza (of the Washington Post, on Twitter)

Ann Althouse

Talking Points Memo

9:08 - As Obama is walking through the crowd, an MSNBC announcer tells us that "we don't expect a repeat" from a year ago, when Representative Joe Wilson shouted out, "You lie!" Well, that doesn't mean anything -- we didn't expect it a year ago either.

9:11 - Obama, as usual, draws a sweeping historical parallel to the present day: we've often been uncertain in the past, but we prevailed because we came together as a nation. This seems besides the point, at least when it comes to health-care reform, since we know the country isn't going to "come together"; at best, a bill might pass by the smallest possible margin.

9:14 - People are distracted by Biden's and Pelosi's matching purples.

9:17 - "If there's anything that has united America ... it's that we all hated the bank bailout."

9:23 - An unfortunate slip of the tongue: "Slowly slum are starting to hire again." He used the good strategy of continuing as if he hadn't made a mistake.

9:29 - My mom pithily sums up the fallacy of so many politicians' rhetoric on businesses:
Small businesses are good. ... Big business sucks though. We want to help small business grow... so it can become big business and then we can hate it.
9:31 - "Meanwhile, China's not waiting to revamp its economy. ... India's not waiting." He flashed some uncharacteristically brusque anger here.

9:43 - "By now, it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics."

9:47 - On health care, Obama concedes: "The longer it was debated, the more skeptical people became. I take my share of the blame for not explaining it more clearly to the American people." (I should mention that my quotes here may be imprecise since I'm transcribing on the fly. I know that the prepared text has been released, but I have more trust in my own ears.)

9:49 - Obama appropriately puts most of the blame on Bush (without naming him) for the country's slide from a surplus to a deficit over the past decade.

9:54 - There's some awkward cackling from the audience when Obama says his spending freeze won't take effect until next year because the economy will be better then. He sternly responds: "That's how budgeting works."

9:58 - Obama proposes that all members of Congress post their requests for earmarks online. Isn't this counterproductive? Politicians want their constituents to know they're trying to get special benefits for their districts.

10:16 - He bluntly admits there's a disconnect between the "Change We Can Believe In" slogan and his actual administration. His explanation, on the face of it, is fairly banal and predictable: "democracy can be noisy," etc. But I find this part of the speech surprisingly poignant, and it seems that some members of the audience do too. The prolonged absence of applause is striking.

10:19 - Obama's equivalent of Bill Clinton's building a bridge to the 21st century: "A new decade stretches before us. We don't quit. I don't quit."

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait, who's generally a strong supporter of Obama, was unimpressed by the substance of the speech:
Obama suggested that we should embrace alternative energy sources even if you doubt climate science. (I’m pretty sure that, if carbon dioxide were harmless, we’d be better off sticking with the cheap energy.) He embraced some hoary populist tropes, in which “Washington” and “us” are homogenous, mutually exclusive categories, and he belongs to the second. (“Washington has been telling us to wait for decades.”) And his rationale for a budget freeze made no sense whatsoever. “I am absolutely convinced that [the stimulus] was the right thing to do,” he said, “But families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” Um, why?

The MSM's reaction to the iPad is out of step with my Facebook feed.

Nicholas Carr sums up the mainstream media's response to Steve Jobs's unveiling of the iPad today:

The rapturous reaction to Apple’s tablet -- the buildup to Jobs’s announcement blurred the line between media feeding-frenzy and orgiastic pagan ritual -- shows that our attitude to the tablet form has finally changed. Tablets suddenly look attractive.
Carr doesn't back this up with any examples, but let's assume he knows what he's talking about. If so, then the mainstream media is much more excited than my Facebook friends who reacted to the announcement. Here's a representative sampling of status updates:
The iPad? More like the iDon'tWannaBuyThisPad.

iDon't see the need for iPad.

but i already have a small macbook, and an iphone. dumb.


In search of quirky movies

In December, I blogged two separate lists of movies from the past decade — my least favorite movies that I saw because they were critically acclaimed (my mom's meme), and my favorite movies from the decade (all of which happened to be critically acclaimed).

Looking at those two lists got me thinking: there's a certain niche of movies I tend to like, but it's difficult to label or even describe. So I decided to ask AskMetafilter for help finding more movies like this.

First I listed the movies in this category that I liked a lot (* = movies I absolutely loved):

Ghost World*
Boogie Nights*
My Dinner with Andre*
After Hours*
About Schmidt
Being John Malkovich
Run Lola Run
Zazie dans le Metro
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Truman Show
Man on the Moon
The People vs. Larry Flynt
American Movie
Heavenly Creatures
What Happened Was . . .
Then I listed the ones I was disappointed by (* = movies I particularly disliked):
Waking Life
Punch-Drunk Love
The Ice Storm
Away We Go
Coffee and Cigarettes
Lost in Translation*
Life is Beautiful*
High Fidelity*
American Beauty*
I Heart Huckabees*
Then I made some observations:
Genre: Most of them probably get filed under "comedy," but this label often seems insufficient. Others might be officially "drama" but seem too funny to merit that label. I apparently like movies that belong in a grey area between comedy and drama, though I don't know if I'd want to pigeonhole them as "dramedies."

Plot: Most if not all of these movies have an unusually loose, open-minded sensibility about plot. Sometimes this is overtly radical (Slacker, My Dinner with Andre), while some of the other movies have semi-conventional plots that unexpectedly end with tantalizing question marks. (Though I disliked Lost in Translation, I didn't dislike it for the same reasons some people did. That is, I didn't say: "This movie's terrible — almost nothing happens and the ending is ambiguous." On the contrary, I said: "Wow, almost nothing happens in this movie and the ending is ambiguous — I can't believe I didn't like it!")

Content: They might focus on dating/love/sex (Sideways), or they might be virtually devoid of traditional romance (Slacker). Many of them have an intellectual or philosophical or makes-you-think quality, but the message isn't necessarily obvious (can you sum up the "meaning" of Ghost World?).
Here are the recommendations from the AskMetafilter commenters.

There are about 60 responses, some of which include several movies, so it'll take me a long time to get through them all. Just to start out, it's clear I need to watch Welcome to the Doll House, Adaptation, The Limey, Rushmore, Before Sunrise, Repo Man, Something Wild, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zizzou, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Brazil, Mulholland Drive, A Serious Man,* Sex Lies and Videotape, Paper Moon, Claire's Knee . . .

The whole thing felt shamelessly self-indulgent — having 60 people help me build up my Netflix queue and analyze my taste. But if your cinematic tastes are similarly quirky, maybe the AskMetafilter thread will prompt you to see a movie you wouldn't have otherwise seen.

* This used to say "Barton Fink," but I changed it in response to the comments.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A facade of voicelessness for the voiced

This ad campaign in support of same-sex marriage featuring Cindy McCain is hard to fathom. The Advocate says that Cindy McCain and others were "photographed with duct tape over their mouths to symbolize that their voices aren’t being heard on the subject of marriage equality."

My mom says:

I get that she supports same-sex marriage, but what does that have to do with anybody forcibly silencing her? If you have something to say, lady, just say it and quit blaming others.
It's generally better, in political discourse, to focus on substance than process unless there actually is a process problem that's too important to ignore. And I don't see one here. Who's being silenced about same-sex marriage? I'm not -- I can say whatever I want about it on this blog. If I have a voice, then Cindy McCain -- a multimillionaire who's married to a US Senator -- definitely has a voice.

Kasey Nicholson-McFadden has a voice. He says:
It doesn’t bother me to tell kids my parents are gay. It does bother me to say they aren’t married. It makes me feel that our family is less than their family.
He made that statement to the New Jersey legislature, and it was reported in the New York Times. He's only 10 years old. If he can be heard making a substantive point in this debate, then rich celebrities can be heard too. If they want to.

This is essentially the same problem that keeps coming up when people like US Attorney General Eric Holder complain about America's supposed failure to have a national conversation about race. As John McWhorter aptly said in response to Holder (which I blogged at the time):
I suspect those who call for this "conversation" know the claim has become more gestural than concrete. Otherwise, they would state their case directly rather than asking to "talk." ... What, or who, would determine that we had finally "talked" enough?
If you want the country to engage in a particular substantive discussion, lead by example.

Perhaps there's an implicit populism in Cindy McCain's protest. If unspecified, impersonal forces have prevented genuine debate on the issue from occurring, then the public can't be blamed for not being more supportive of same-sex marriage. But if this is the intended message, it's condescending in addition to being wrong.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Real people

When did we start using "real people" to mean "people who aren't famous"?

The phrase can be useful in a different sense: "I don't want to call this company's customer service department, because you can never get through to a real person." That's appropriate because you're contrasting real people with things that literally aren't people but mere imitations -- computers, robots.

But when a political talk show host says something like, "And now, we're going to take a break from talking to our guests, and hear what some real people have to say about this issue," I have to feel sorry for those guests. They might be high-level politicians or pundits, but they're human beings too. Everyone's a real person.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Helping Haiti

Everyone seems to be texting "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to the American Red Cross (which my mom connects to Jesus). Everyone, that is, except Mickey Kaus, who makes a point of saying he doesn't trust the Red Cross and is donating to Partners in Health.

I don't share Kaus's anti-Red Cross sentiment, but his remark did get me thinking about where I should donate. Then I realized I had already donated to Doctors Without Borders' aid to Haiti without knowing it, since I opted for a fixed amount of my paycheck to go to that organization. "Our immediate response in the first hours following the disaster in Haiti," says the organization, "was only possible because of private unrestricted donations from around the world received before the earthquake struck." You can donate to them through this link.

Doctors Without Borders (a.k.a. Medicins sans Frontieres) is urgently trying to overcome numerous logistical hurdles to offering help. Even just showing up in Port-au-Prince is a huge challenge for all the organizations trying to do so. Meanwhile, the most useful thing for random Americans to do, as former president George W. Bush said (see embedded video at the end of this post), isn't to try to send blankets or water and hope that they get to the people who need them. The best we can do is to send lots of money to the aid workers who are on the ground in Haiti (or at least trying to get there) and who understand the details of what needs to be done. I can't figure out how Doctors Without Borders can get all the necessary supplies, workers, and inflatable hospitals where they need to be; the best I can do is send them some of my money so that they're better equipped to do this hard work. It's easy to get a warm feeling from imagining you're directly giving people food and water and blankets, but do I know how to prioritize the people who need caesarian sections and amputations? Of course not. As much as some people might scoff at "throwing money at a problem," Bush is correct to point out that that's exactly what we need to do now. (It's what often needs to be done -- not just for Haiti or natural disasters but to deal with all sorts of problems -- since money allows trained personnel to apply their expertise to a distinctive, complex set of challenges.)

Doctors Without Borders also notes that donations to them don't just go to the banner-headline disaster in Haiti but also to humanitarian crises that the Western media doesn't pay as much attention to.

Again, you can donate to Doctors Without Borders here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

“First, kill a medium-sized dog, then burn off the fur over a hot fire.”

Peter Singer draws our attention to this, the first step in a "tongue-in-cheek" recipe in Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals.

Singer explains (summarizing Foer):

Yes, dogs are intelligent, feeling beings, but so are pigs, cows and chickens. Properly cooked, dog meat is as healthy and nutritious as any other meat. It is also said to be delicious. In fact, since many people now advocate eating locally produced food and stray dogs are killed in their thousands in most big cities every year, dogs are the ideal local meat.
You can find the full recipe near the end of this editorial by Foer, which also expands on the case for eating dogs.

Monday, January 11, 2010

An atheist finds "comfort" in thinking of death.

I largely agree with this long, thoughtful blog post about death by Greta Christina. Like her, I find the claim that religion provides "comfort" to be quite perplexing in the context of the afterlife.

Knowing that there is no afterlife would provide more comfort to me than knowing that you'll go either to heaven or to hell in the afterlife, even if I thought I'd have a much greater chance of going to heaven than to hell. As a thought-experiment, let's put aside the afterlife for a second and imagine there's a magical coin that you may choose to flip. If you flip it and it comes up heads, you'll experience a wonderfully blissful sensation beyond anything you've ever experienced for, say, one minute. If you flip it and it comes up tails, you'll experience horrible torture worse than anything you've ever experienced, also for a minute. Or, you're free not to flip the coin at all and go on with your normal life. Would you flip the coin?

Not only would I not flip the coin, but this decision seems so obvious that I find it hard to imagine anyone saying they would do it. But let's change the hypothetical so it's far more skewed in favor of flipping it. Or, rather, let's say it's not a coin but a well-shuffled deck of cards. If you draw a two of clubs, you get the torture, but if you draw any of the other 51 cards, you get the pleasure. So there's only about a 2% chance of the bad outcome. And we could skew the hypo even further by imagining that if you get the pleasure, it lasts for a whole hour; the torture is still just one minute. Even with all these stipulations, I would still readily choose not to take this gamble. That's how bad the possibility of torture is.

That's why I couldn't find comfort in any worldview in which hell — which presumably involves torture — is a possibility. The idea that hell would be eternal obviously intensifies this feeling. In fact, even if I know that the afterlife could be heaven or hell but were assured that I would get to heaven, I still couldn't feel good about this knowing that other people would go to hell. In fact, my feeling about this would be the opposite of comfort.

ADDED: After I posted this, I saw that Greta Christina has a whole other blog post on that last point, including a response from the Christian theologian William Lane Craig. Sample point from Craig:

[I]t is possible that God removes from the minds of the redeemed any knowledge of the damned. It seems to me that so doing is merciful and involves no wrong-doing on God's part.
Unsurprisingly, Greta Christina isn't convinced — she can't get past the question:
How can it be Heaven if our families aren't there?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The incoherent moral psychology of terrorists

From a New York Times piece on "The Terrorist Mind":

A play by Albert Camus, “The Just,” is sometimes cited in explanations of the moral complexities of terrorism. It tells the true story of the assassination by a revolutionary group in 1905 of a grand duke in Russia. The assassin planned to kill the duke while he was riding alone in a carriage but the duke’s niece and nephew accompanied him. So the assassin went back and killed him when he was alone, having drawn from what John Horgan, director of International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University, calls the “internal limits” of terrorists.

For a book published last year, Dr. Horgan collected the accounts of 29 former terrorists, many of them defectors from groups like the Irish Republican Army and Al Qaeda. He found that terrorists must inherently believe that violence against the enemy is not immoral, but that they also have internal limits, which they often do not learn until they are deeply embedded in a group.

Some terrorists who accepted killing off-duty soldiers abhorred the killing of animals. Some are comfortable with only a limited number of casualties. When a key I.R.A. bombing instructor was ordered to shoot a police officer whose mother was a widow, he said he felt he “would have to pay for it.” He went into hiding when the I.R.A. killed a pregnant officer and he overheard his mentor say, “We might get two for the price of one.”

Some interviewed by Dr. Horgan told of becoming disillusioned when other group members stole or robbed banks. It was the stealing that bothered them, not the killing.

David C. Rapoport, professor emeritus of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a longtime expert on terrorism and morality, said that the final common pathway is a moral calculus, driven by the conclusion that the terrorists’ enemies have “done something so bad, so terrible that they can’t get away with it.” Moral quandaries have often splintered groups, or caused them to disband.

If your objective is to create a world in which innocents (the members of your persecuted group) prevail, but you have to kill innocents to get there, you are in essence destroying your own dream, Dr. Rapoport said. Nevertheless, he said, many terrorists believe “the pathway to paradise is straight through hell." And to kill or in any way violate their own personal moral codes, many terrorists must believe they will achieve a higher moral condition for the group or society as a whole.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

When should the punishment fit the criminal?

My mom links to a news story about a Swiss man who received a fine of $290,000 for speeding. The fine was so high because of his extreme wealth: he supposedly has over $22 million to his name. (He was going 35 miles per hour over the speed limit.)

My mom first defends the fine but then challenges us to think about its implications:

[Y]ou can't punish very effectively with a fine unless you take the individual into account. This guy shouldn't be able to casually buy his way into having the rules not apply to him, which is what it would be if he paid the speeding fine that would burden lesser folk but is nothing to him.

Now, let's extend this idea. Take a guy who loves solitude and spending time at home reading. Some other guy has lots of companions and loves going out every night and working and playing outdoors. They commit the same felony. Should they get the same prison term?
No, the principle justifying a variable fine in a speeding case doesn't extend to the prison hypothetical.

First, it would be too hard to collect accurate evidence of people's personal preferences even if we decided they're relevant in principle. It's relatively easy to determine someone's net worth. I'm not saying the evidence couldn't be fudged, but a court at least has a good chance of determining the answer within the right ballpark. If there's a legal standard having to do with something as amorphous as "how you like to spend your time," it would be practically begging both sides (especially the defendant) to lie.

Second, you'd need to consider that the introverted bibliophile doesn't love anything that can be labeled "solitude." Surely his preference is for comfortable furniture and soothing decor and access to a particular library of books and so on. For that matter, you could say that after all the extrovert's outdoorsy activities and adventures, he would actually benefit more from the solitude of prison than the introvert would; at least it could be said to balance out his earlier experiences.

That's all mostly beside the point, though, since the unpleasantness and unfreedom of prison can be presumed to be equally undesirable to everyone. Money has a fixed, objective value, which accounts for its diminishing utility. That is, the richer you are, the less personal value any fixed amount of money tends to have for you. But the desire for liberty is universal.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What happens to men, violence, and sex in a matriarchy

From an interview with an Argentinian who spent time among the Mosuo people of China, observing their matriarchal culture (via Church of Rationality):

[Q:] What is life like for a man in a matriarchy?

[A:] Men live better where women are in charge: you are responsible for almost nothing, you work much less and you spend the whole day with your friends. You're with a different woman every night. And on top of that, you can always live at your mother's house. The woman serves the man and it happens in a society where she leads the way and has control of the money. In a patriarchy, we men work more -- and every now and then we do the dishes. In the Mosuo's pure form of matriarchy, you aren't allowed to do that. Where a woman's dominant position is secure, those kinds of archaic gender roles don't have any meaning.

[Q:] What astonished you the most?

[A:] That there is no violence in a matriarchal society. I know that quickly slips into idealization -- every human society has its problems. But it simply doesn't make sense to the Mosuo women to solve conflicts with violence. Because they are in charge, nobody fights. They don't know feelings of guilt or vengeance -- it is simply shameful to fight. They are ashamed if they do and it even can threaten their social standing. ...

[Q:] How does [the] division of roles function when it comes to love?

[A:] ... Someone always wants to present you with a woman and there is always a woman there who is smiling at you. Like I said, these are very strong women who give the orders and yell at you as if you were deaf. But when it comes to seduction, they completely change. The women act shy, look at the floor, sing softly to themselves and blush. And they let the men believe that we are the ones who choose the women and do the conquering.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The best blog posts of 2009

Here they are, collected by Church of Rationality. He categorizes them by length and by "low-brow"/"mid-brow"/"high-brow."

I am biased since one of my blog posts is on the list. Mine is "long, mid-brow."

The post of "random thoughts" is full of life observations that I can strongly relate to. I do this all the time:

Have you ever been walking down the street and realized that you’re going in the complete opposite direction of where you are supposed to be going? But instead of just turning a 180 and walking back in the direction from which you came, you have to first do something like check your watch or phone or make a grand arm gesture and mutter to yourself to ensure that no one in the surrounding area thinks you’re crazy by randomly switching directions on the sidewalk.
This is the one observation from that post that stands out as being off the mark: 
I like all of the music in my iTunes, except when it’s on shuffle, then I like about one in every fifteen songs in my iTunes.
I have the opposite experience. If I look for music to listen to by scrolling through my iPod library arranged by artist, I always feel disappointed with how little of it I actually want to listen to compared with how much work I've put into building up the library. But if I put it on shuffle, I instantly realize that it's full of great music. My theory is that I enjoy the process of actually creating my own library more than the goal of having all the music I want. This might be why setting the music on shuffle is more enjoyable than trying to answer the question, "What's the very best music I could listen to right now?" -- because the shuffle simulates the more unpredictable process of discovering music in the first place.