Being Optimistic

My favorite feel-good quote of the semester:

For us, nostalgia is not only unproductive but also senseless. Things are getting better, not worse.

From 2.0.


Webs We’ve Weaved

While reading through Evgeny Morozov’s critical take on the role of the internet, I came across this ope-ed by Trevor Butterworth for The Daily.

Butterworth’s argument is similar to Morozov’s in this way: the internet is more of a dangerous tool for unruly rulers than a helpful one for democracy-spreaders. He imagines the internet in the hands of the National Socialist Party under Hitler, with an interesting precedent:

…the Nazis didn’t just love technology, they regarded Technik as central to promulgating National Socialism. By 1939, over 70 percent of German households – the highest percentage in the world — had radios…

Churchill vs. Hitler: Scissors beats paper.

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Narrating War

It’s no secret that killing people is unpleasant. Even if there weren’t genetic blocks against bloodlust, we have all been conditioned to understand that causing death is bad. Other people deserve to live.

Unless they’re not people. Or they’re very, very, bad people.

"goons 'massacre' rebels" (screenshot from The Daily)

Name-calling is an effective argument. In logic-nerd circles (where arguments ad hominem are invalid) this is not true, but to the rest of us, calling someone a name often works wonders to undermine their credibility.

dislodging "Gadhafi's thugs" (clipped from The Daily)

It’s only natural that we be willing to bomb “goons” but not “fathers.” Of course, if you’re beating a war drum, “thugs” also seems perfectly appropriate (as opposed to “supporters of the current government”).

Now, before you call me a name to discredit me (Gadhafi lover!), let me say that I don’t think there’s a “right” side to this story.

Having said that, I believe we are entitled to reporting on events that doesn’t paint so clear a picture of desired outcomes. Populism is popular (notice the shared Latin root…), but invoking hatred, or very very stern dislike, is not the job of news media.

They should leave it to blog commenters…



Updated: About

I’m a grad student at UT-Dallas, which is less glamorous than it sounds. This blog is obligatory, which means the posts are assignments, which means I am generally going to procrastinate about content. If satire or sarcasm seep into my writing, it’s because I can’t help myself.

Storytelling interests me. Children do it when playing alone or with others (“Oh no! We need to go over here and save Mr. Jingles! Follow me!”) and never grow out of it. The stories may become more nuanced or complex, but they never stop coming.

When we get older, we tend to filter stories. Clearly, it isn’t possible to know of — let alone hear — every story that exists. We individually tend to trust certain sources and ignore others.

Traditional (“mainstream”) media outlets have spent decades, if not centuries, earning peoples’ trust as a source of story. Through this trust, they have come to control the overarching narrative of our lives. While we may individually have our own stories, we have all shared the world as presented by others via our televisions, newspapers, magazines, etc.

With shiny new media, this trend may (or arguably not) be changing. The number of available story sources has increased exponentially, bringing up the number of stories knowingly available. They (or we?) who control these narratives control the world. Or do they?

On the Head

Robin Hanson nails it in a recent post to his fantastic blog, Overcoming Bias:

One way to avoid having a social norm to apply to oneself is to prevent wide knowledge that the norm applies to your situation. It is all right if some folks know, as long as outsider observers don’t know. People don’t want to anyone to be able to prove they knowingly failed to enforce a norm.

This (at least in part) drives the desire for privacy; of course, it is also a social norm to restrict certain activities to private settings.

Even understanding what someone means when they smile is a complicated process we take for granted;  the complexities of socialization come naturally to us after millions of years of evolution.

Of course, there are evolutionary advantages to being able to work around social norms (e.g., a male produces more genetic offspring if he cheats on an ostensibly monogamous female partner). This results in hypocrisy (again from Overcoming Bias):

When folks expect to be able to evade a norm, they don’t mind making that norm stronger. This lets them sound more pro-social, while actually giving themselves an advantage over folks who can’t evade as easily. And once norms get overly strong, there is more intuitive support for allowing evasion, via attitudes supporting letting people keep their “privacy.”

I submit this as a solid launch pad for answering the question, “What is public, what is private?”

Public becomes the realm of activities and behaviors which help us cooperate socially to increase survival, and private being the realm of activities primarily focused on self-interest and individualism.

Please Hammer, Don’t

Hammers are awesome. To our rockhammer using ancestors, hammers were life-saving and -giving. There’s a reason the handheld hammer is in every worthwhile toolbox around the world.

Super Mario Hammer

In his essay titled “Cyberdemocracy: The Internet and the Public Sphere”, Mark Poster makes the outrageous claim that “the effect of hammers is not to make people hammers” (p. 262).

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I Am My Own Dauphin

I am opposed to spanking. I would be more open to it if a child, once spanked, never misbehaved again, but I’m pretty sure that never happens. Not-spanking doesn’t mean you let children do everything they please, but it does mean you have to be more creative wherever an action requires a manufactured consequence. If little Timmy chops off a finger while playing with the door (a “natural” consequence) you told him not to play with, manufacturing additional punishment seems excessive — although an “I told you so” may prove irresistible.

Like those intrepid parents who don’t wish to hit their children to punish them, governments and societies invest great amounts of treasure, time, and/or energy into developing disciplinary techniques. French philosopher Michel Foucault offers his three cents in his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison; of special interest (i.e., class assignment) is the chapter titled “Panopticism.”


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