Archives for February 2018

Why Amartya Sen remains the century’s great critic of capitalism

By Tim Rogan, Aeon

Critiques of capitalism come in two varieties. First, there is the moral or spiritual critique. This critique rejects Homo economicus as the organising heuristic of human affairs. Human beings, it says, need more than material things to prosper. Calculating power is only a small part of what makes us who we are. Moral and spiritual relationships are first-order concerns. Material fixes such as a universal basic income will make no difference to societies in which the basic relationships are felt to be unjust. 

Then there is the material critique of capitalism. The economists who lead discussions of inequality now are its leading exponents. Homo economicus is the right starting point for social thought. We are poor calculators and single-minded, failing to see our advantage in the rational distribution of prosperity across societies. Hence inequality, the wages of ungoverned growth. But we are calculators all the same, and what we need above all is material plenty, thus the focus on the redress of material inequality. From good material outcomes, the rest follows.

The first kind of argument for capitalism’s reform seems recessive now. The material critique predominates. Ideas emerge in numbers and figures. Talk of non-material values in political economy is muted. The Christians and Marxists who once made the moral critique of capitalism their own are marginal. Utilitarianism grows ubiquitous and compulsory.

But then there is Amartya Sen.

[Read more…]

It’s time for young Americans to assert their power at the ballot box

David Leonhardt writes:

Voter turnout is the biggest opportunity — and biggest challenge — for the new progressive movement. The problem is easy enough to describe: Progressives don’t vote as often as conservatives do.

Americans under age 30, for example, lean notably left. They are socially liberal, worried about climate change and in favor of higher taxes on the rich. But most of them don’t vote, especially outside of presidential elections. In the 2014 midterms — when Republicans took control of the Senate and held the House — only one of every six citizens between 18 and 29 voted. One in six! The same year, more than half of people aged 60 or older voted. [Continue reading…]

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Algorithms of oppression

MIT Technology Review reports:

The internet might seem like a level playing field, but it isn’t. Safiya Umoja Noble came face to face with that fact one day when she used Google’s search engine to look for subjects her nieces might find interesting. She entered the term “black girls” and came back with pages dominated by pornography.

Noble was horrified but not surprised. The UCLA communications professor has been arguing for years that the values of the web reflect its builders—mostly white, Western men—and do not represent minorities and women. Her latest book, Algorithms of Oppression, details research she started after that fateful Google search, and it explores the hidden structures that shape how we get information through the internet.

The book, out this month, argues that search engine algorithms aren’t as neutral as Google would like you to think. Algorithms promote some results above others, and even a seemingly neutral piece of code can reflect society’s biases. What’s more, without any insight into how the algorithms work or what the broader context is, searches can unfairly shape the discussion of a topic like black girls.

Noble spoke to MIT Technology Review about the problems inherent with the current system, how Google could do better, and how artificial intelligence might make things worse. [Continue reading…]

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Warren Buffett loves Apple because of consumer addiction to the iPhone

Quartz reports:

Warren Buffett told CNBC that Berkshire Hathaway has purchased more shares of Apple than any other stock over the past year. It reflects the famed investor’s belief in Apple’s value as a consumer brand, not unlike Coca-Cola, Berkshire’s fourth-largest US stock holding. (Apple is now the second largest.)

Buffett’s take on Apple is striking because it’s seemingly not rooted directly in a view of Apple’s technology, manufacturing, or design prowess. The Berkshire CEO didn’t mention the iPhone X’s cameras or Apple’s application of voice recognition, cloud computing, or artificial intelligence.

It’s more that Buffett likes how reluctant consumers are to switch away from the iPhone to use a rival smartphone.

“Apple has an extraordinary consumer franchise,” he told CNBC. “I see how strong that ecosystem is, to an extraordinary degree. … You are very, very, very locked in, at least psychologically and mentally, to the product you are using. [The iPhone] is a very sticky product.” [Continue reading…]

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The white men seemed like lightning from heaven but their shit smelled just like ours

 

Sean Flynn writes:

Long after missionaries and Europeans settled on the coast of New Guinea in the 19th century, the mountainous interior remained unexplored. As recently as the 1920s, outsiders believed the mountains, which run the length of the island from east to west, were too steep and rugged for anyone to live there. But when gold was discovered 40 miles inland, prospectors went north across the Coral Sea to seek their fortunes. Among them were three brothers from Queensland, Australia: Michael, James and Daniel Leahy, the children of Irish immigrants, who in the early 1930s hiked to the top of the ridges with a group of native porters and gun bois (or armed guards) from the coast.

In the highlands the Leahys found wide, fertile valleys, groomed with garden plots that were later estimated to feed a million inhabitants sorted into hundreds of tribes and clans. The highlanders lived in huts of timber and kunai grass, used stone tools and fought with wooden spears and arrows. Just as white settlers had been unaware of their existence, the highlanders had no idea that anyone lived beyond the mountains.

At first, they suspected the white men were spirits, or maybe lightning come to earth. More curious than afraid, they traded with the white men, sweet potatoes and pigs and women in exchange for steel axes and shells (plentiful on the coast, but rare and highly prized in the highlands). When the expedition encountered new tribes, Michael “Mick” Leahy, the oldest brother and acknowledged leader, would shoot a pig to demonstrate his superior firepower. If a tribal “big man” tried to rally his warriors into a raiding party, Mick and his gun bois would shoot a few of them, too.

The Leahys traipsed through the highlands until, in 1933, they struck a claim near what is now Mount Hagen. There they built an airstrip, with friendly locals stamping the dirt flat in endless sing-sings, and settled in to make a modest fortune dredging shiny rocks from the streams. In time, the Leahys became famous for “opening” the interior to the outside world, and Mount Hagen grew into one of the country’s largest cities.

Nearly 50 years later, Bob Connolly, then a young journalist in Sydney, met Robin Anderson at the Australian Broadcasting Company, where they both worked making documentaries for television. The two fell in love and began looking for independent projects. One evening, at dinner with a friend who happened to be working on an oral history of the colonization of New Guinea, they learned that Mick Leahy, besides being a prospector and explorer, was also an amateur photographer—and not only had he brought a still camera and a movie camera on his expeditions, but his films and photographs were rumored to have survived.

Robin tracked down one of Mick Leahy’s sons in the coastal Papua New Guinea town of Lae, who went into his attic and retrieved 11 canisters of film. What was more, Robin heard stories that there were people in the highlands who still remembered when the white men first came. After flying back to Sydney, she soon returned—this time with Bob, along with camera equipment, and the two spent months retracing the Leahys’ original route.

The resulting film, First Contact, was released in 1983. It was a remarkable achievement, combining Mick’s jerky black-and-white footage and photographs of his encounters with the highlanders with Bob and Robin’s interviews with native men and women who had been there. Intercut with those were lengthy sit-downs with the two surviving Leahy brothers, both by then very old men and long settled in the highlands. (Mick had died in 1978.) Bob and Robin produced the film in the format to which they were accustomed: 54 minutes, television length, shot by a hired crew, narrated by a professional voice actor. A reconstruction of an archetypal story like this one—among the last encounters between two different cultures who had no knowledge of the other—must usually be dredged from diaries and ships’ logs and other centuries-old accounts and recreated from fragments, from dust. In this case, though, there was no need to guess at how the highlanders and the white men saw each other, to puzzle it out from stray clues: they all looked into a camera and spoke for themselves. “We not only have Cortez on the Aztecs,” Bob told friends. “We have the Aztecs on Cortez!” [Continue reading…]

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The first peoples in the Americas were not from Europe

Jennifer Raff writes:

Last month’s release of The Ice Bridge, an episode in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series The Nature of Things has once again revived public discussion of a controversial idea about how the Americas were peopled known as the “Solutrean hypothesis”. This idea suggests a European origin for the peoples who made the Clovis tools, the first recognized stone tool tradition in the Americas. As I was one of the experts appearing on the documentary, I want to share my thoughts about it and why I see the ideas portrayed within as unsettling, unwise, and scientifically implausible.

First, in addition to the scientific problems with the Solutrean hypothesis which I’ll discuss shortly, it’s important to note that it has overt political and cultural implications in denying that Native Americans are the only indigenous peoples of the continents. The notion that the ancestors of Native Americans were not the first or only people on the continent has great popularity among white nationalists, who see it as a means of denying Native Americans an ancestral claim on their land. Indeed, although this particular iteration is new, the idea behind the Solutrean hypothesis is part of a long tradition of Europeans trying to insert themselves into American prehistory; justifying colonialism by claiming that Native Americans were not capable of creating the diverse and sophisticated material culture of the Americas. Unfortunately, the producers of the documentary deliberately chose not to address this issue head-on, nor did they include any critical perspectives from indigenous peoples. While supporting the agenda of white nationalists was not the intent of the producers or of the scientists involved, it would have been appropriate for the documentary to take a stand against it, and I and many archaeologists are disappointed that they did not. [Continue reading…]

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How to die with equanimity, without fear

 

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How Trump conquered Facebook — without Russian ads

Antonio García Martínez writes:

It’s not every day that a former work colleague gets retweeted by the president of the United States.

Last Friday, Rob Goldman, a vice president inside Facebook’s Ads team, rather ill-advisedly published a series of tweets that seemed to confirm the Trump administration’s allegations regarding the recent indictments of 13 Russian nationals by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. To wit, the tweets said that the online advertising campaign led by the shadowy Internet Research Agency was meant to divide the American people, not influence the 2016 election.

You’re probably skeptical of Rob’s claim, and I don’t blame you. The world looks very different to people outside the belly of Facebook’s monetization beast. But when you’re on the inside, like Rob is and like I was, and you have access to the revenue dashboards detailing every ring of the cash register, your worldview tends to follow what advertising data can and cannot tell you.

From this worldview, it’s still not clear how much influence the IRA had with its Facebook ads (which, as others have pointed out, is just one small part of the huge propaganda campaign that Mueller is currently investigating). But no matter how you look at them, Russia’s Facebook ads were almost certainly less consequential than the Trump campaign’s mastery of two critical parts of the Facebook advertising infrastructure: The ads auction, and a benign-sounding but actually Orwellian product called Custom Audiences (and its diabolical little brother, Lookalike Audiences). Both of which sound incredibly dull, until you realize that the fate of our 242-year-old experiment in democracy once depended on them, and surely will again. [Continue reading…]

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Allowing teachers to be armed is an asinine idea, says a veteran who’s been shot in combat

Matt Martin writes:

Someone shooting at you, specifically trying to kill you, is probably the most terrifying life event a person could ever experience.

Regardless of training, you don’t know how people will respond in life and death situations until the moment comes. You don’t know how people will react when they hear gunshots. You don’t know how people will react when the person next to them is shot. You don’t know how a person will respond when their task is shooting someone they know or taught. You just don’t know.

And now we are expecting teachers, even with training, to perfectly handle this situation. I say perfectly because anything less could mean even more tragedy and death. This isn’t a movie where bullets always miss the hero. These teachers aren’t action stars. These are average people, who more likely than not, have never come close to experiencing anything like this.

Few people actually run towards gunfire. Most search for cover. Some can’t function. Fight or flight. Adrenaline floods your body. Time doesn’t exist. Your heart beats outside of your chest. Fine motor skills stop working. People urinate and defecate themselves. Good luck holding steady aim at a moving target. Even the simplest of tasks, such as reloading can become difficult. Your hands shake for hours afterward. It’s chaotic on a level that is beyond comprehension until you experience it. [Continue reading…]

Allegations of sexual misconduct facing celebrity atheist and liberal crusader, Lawrence Krauss

BuzzFeed reports:

When Melody Hensley first met Lawrence Krauss, she was a 29-year-old makeup artist at a department store, and he was one of her intellectual idols. She ran an atheist website in her spare time and had just started volunteering for the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a nonprofit group committed to promoting science and reason above faith. She was hoping to build a career in the burgeoning “skeptics” movement, and Krauss was one of its brightest luminaries.

At a CFI event in November 2006, Krauss asked Hensley for her card, and later, as she was leaving, asked her if she was “of age.” She brushed off the odd question, excited to meet a star skeptic. When he later emailed to invite her to dinner, she accepted.

“I didn’t care if he flirted with me, I just wanted to be around somebody important, and I also wanted to get a job in this field,” Hensley told BuzzFeed News. “I thought I could handle myself.”

They made a plan to eat in the restaurant at the Washington, DC, hotel where Krauss was staying, Hensley recalled. But first he asked her to come up to his room while he wrapped up some work. He seemed in no rush to leave, she said, ordering a cheese plate and later champagne, despite her suggestion that they go down to dinner.

Then, Hensley said, Krauss made a comment about her eye makeup, and got very close to her face. Suddenly, he lifted her by the arms and pushed her onto the bed beneath him, forcibly kissing her and trying to pull down the crotch of her tights. Hensley said she struggled to push him off. When he pulled out a condom, Hensley said, she got out from under him, said “I have to go,” and rushed out of the room.

Krauss told BuzzFeed News that what happened with Hensley in the hotel room was consensual. In that room, “we mutually decided, in a polite discussion in fact, that taking it any further would not be appropriate,” he told BuzzFeed News by email.

But Hensley said that is untrue. “It was definitely predatory,” she said. “I didn’t want that to happen. It wasn’t consensual.”

Later that night, Hensley told her boyfriend, now husband, that Krauss had made her feel uncomfortable, her husband confirmed to BuzzFeed News. Years later, she told him — as well as several employees at CFI — the full story.

BuzzFeed News has learned that the incident with Hensley is one of many wide-ranging allegations of Krauss’s inappropriate behavior over the last decade — including groping women, ogling and making sexist jokes to undergrads, and telling an employee at Arizona State University, where he is a tenured professor, that he was going to buy her birth control so she didn’t inconvenience him with maternity leave. In response to complaints, two institutions — Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario — have quietly restricted him from their campuses. Our reporting is based on official university documents, emails, and interviews with more than 50 people. [Continue reading…]

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