A place for new ideas to settle.

02 September 2015

Wednesday Links -- 2 September 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

This piece in the New Republic from 2014 pretty (suspiciously?) well echos the introduction to Doing Good Better, a book on effective altruism that I'll be reviewing shortly. In particular, it makes DGB's very persuasive case that the current paradigm of charitable giving and international aid in particular... sucks. But DGB does give some counterpoints to the typical aid-skeptic view, noting that while "average" aid has been on the order of 100-200 dollars per person per year to the developing world, that's a false image because charity effectiveness is highly skewed: the very best charities are incredibly effective compared to even merely very good charities. So a lot more has been done than one might expect. (All the more reason to pay attention to which charities are the very best!)

Ashley Madison Code Shows More Women, and More Bots. It should be a theorem of the Internet by now: given any private service promising (closed-source) discretion, your desire for discretion has far more value to the service than any actual discretion. This holds for adulterous dating sites as much as it does for anonymous remailers, Bitcoin services, or whatever.

Eric Liu at the Atlantic makes the same case for E. D. Hirsch's cultural literacy argument as I did several years ago: that any effective liberal progressive agenda must include cultural literacy, otherwise there will be far fewer ways to effectively engage with the power structure. Holy hell, he must have actually read the book!

Tom Shippey in this 2011 Wall Street Journal article makes a powerful case for the science fiction genre, rebutting authors who disdain the label and yet freely appropriate the form and trappings anyway. What does it mean when someone like Margaret Atwood says The Handmaid's Tale isn't science fiction—and it isn't, it's a fable—and seems to believe that a sfnal Handmaid's Tale (where the connection between the setting and the present day actually seems plausible rather than obvious caricature) would somehow be an inferior story?
What event could trigger the rise of a patriarchal theocracy? Robert Heinlein would have thought of something political. How do the patriarchs keep the young males obedient and suppressed? Jack Vance would have thought of something anthropological. Both George Orwell, in "1984," and Huxley, in "Brave New World," described the precise origins of their dystopias with a thoroughness that Ms. Atwood never attempts. That's sci-fi. Scenario on its own—that is, what we get in "The Handmaid's Tale"? That's not sci-fi, that's (just) speculative.
Shippey also laments the genre's turn towards navel-gazing dystopian stories. I think that trend is finally turning around, but still.

Carceral Feminism and the Libertarian Alternative. Usually when an article talks about a Libertarian Alternative to something it comes out... wrong. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is both sincere and reasonable, a shocking combination among Internet political-thinkpiece-writers. Just imagine the Facebook comments though!

Internet Win: The Wikipedia Page For Racism Is Getting Absolutely Destroyed! Take that, racism!

Meanwhile, Fredrik de Boer laments:
Of all of the ways in which our political conversation is broken, all of the endless petty erosions to the basic ability to meaningfully discuss politics in any constructive way at all, I think this tendency is the worst. It is the single most undermining, destructive way to behave. “I want you to be saying this thing that I think is wrong so that I can get mad at you for being wrong about it and get others to condemn you.” That’s where political progress goes to die, and I have no more patience for it. Sorry. I’m too damn old.
His "one rule" is a pretty good one, I think.

Sam Altman, founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, is regarded by the tech community has having some sort of good judgement. After all, he picked successful startups like AirBnB. Recently he got some press by saying that he'd invest $100 billion in artificial-intelligence-safety research and development. In the same interview he also claimed that the government was causing "vast overinflation across the board." I don't feel confident agreeing with the wisdom of either.

Related: This startup demonstrates how thin the conceptual line between fair lending and multi-level marketing actually is. Also reinventing the co-signer wheel, in some sense.

The Unlikely Reanimation of H. P Lovecraft: H. P. Lovecraft has far exceeded his own deathbed expectations, going from near-oblivion to popular and critical acclaim on the year of his 125th birthday. Yet, as the Web page title notes, he was a "genius, cult icon, racist." And how! I have a two-volume collection of his correspondence with Robert E. Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame, another genius cult icon racist. They exchange a variety of, ah, colorful theories of anthropology, based on all sorts of pseudoscience: it's quite fun to read, actually, in a fascinated "wow these ideas were taken seriously not that long ago" way. But as the article notes (echoed in several quotes from Lovecraft scholars and critics) it was precisely his sense of nihilism and alienation born of racism that gives his stories their universal appeal. An amusing irony, that.

A blog I must now follow religiously, Urban kchoze, points out the much more sensible Japanese zoning laws. I will freely acknowledge this, and counter with the insanity that is Japanese mailing address assignment.

Another blog I'll be looking at closely: Naturopathic Diaries — Confessions of a Naturopathic Doctor. I wasn't aware how broad the scope of naturopathic practice is in Washington State, when naturopathy is essentially pseudo-accredited bullshit.  See this interview with the author in Vox.

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