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How to help Haiti. Meaning, how you should help. Short answer: give money, not canned goods or other bullshit. And try not to restrict your giving to the present catastrophe, because preventative measures for future disasters leverage your gift. (Another way to look at it: lots of people are going to give for this disaster. Caring visionaries have the guts to look beyond today.) Anyway. You can text “HAITI” to “90999” to have a $10 charge applied to your phone bill and sent to the Red Cross, which is fine if you’re cheap and lazy I guess. I’d suggest giving how much you think you can really afford, giving to an established organization such as the Red Cross, Oxfam, or Doctors Without Borders, and not directing your money specifically towards this incident, so the charity is free to use the overflow towards tomorrow’s good works once they do what they can about the present emergency. You also need to take a long-term interest in Haiti, and lobby your congressperson to do right towards it. Remember that Haiti was in dire straights even before yesterday, when all you could think about was Conan O’Brien and the fucking weather.

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Your year-end task list

I was in a store yesterday and Christmas music was playing, but presumably that’s the last vestige of “the holidays” now that it’s The Monday After. And so we’re on to the next thing, which is the end of the year. Party party. But not so fast; isn’t there some stuff you’re supposed to take care of before the first of the new year? Things that, if you’re going to do them, now is the time to do them?

Posted: Monday December 28, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

You can worry about the environment, a little less

The Planet Earth, bitches Right now, a 7-year old girl in India is dying, and it’s because you’re buying a Toyota Prius. Read on to see why this is true, and what it has to do with the future of environmental policy for the planet.

Al Gore will go down in history as a pivotal figure in helping the human population realize that it’s wreaking havoc with the planet’s temperature, and helping set us on the path to correcting the problems. However, it is an intellectual fallacy to thing that because the man is right about the problem, he must also be correct about the proper solution. We have serious problems, and we need some major solutions. I could try to convince you that we should be glad that Al Gore isn’t setting world policy on this stuff, but that’s not really necessary, since there isn’t even a remote possibility of that happening. So I’ll instead try to convince you that you don’t need to worry quite as much as you have been about global warming.

But first a brief and semi-obvious point about politics. We don’t have a King of the World. Boy don’t we. We have a couple of hundred sovereign countries on this planet, and whatever happens has to deal with the millions of political realities that come into play as these countries try to work together. (And yes, game theory comes into play here — if China thinks the US is doing something about reducing carbon emissions, their incentive to reduce their own emissions is lessened. Etc, etc, etc.) So, sometimes it’s useful to talk about environmental policy as though you could snap your fingers and make anything World Law. But at some point in your discussion you need always to come back to political and economic reality.

Okay, so here’s the doomsday scenario that has been painted for us: the world is on the brink of massive environmental change that will cause myriad changes, both predictable and unpredictable, and be catastrophic for the human race. Furthermore, we may be on the edge of a Tipping Point™, wherein after a certain point it will be too late for us to do anything. Therefore, despite scientific uncertainty1 about the exact rate and effects of global warming, we need to Error on the Side of Caution, and take drastic steps to cut our carbon emissions and generally live in a much different way than we have been.

Now, I agree to some extent that this is all true. But increasingly, I think that it’s all going to work out. We’re going to be able to do what is necessary, which is not what Al Gore right now thinks is what is necessary. To get a whiff of what I’ve been smoking, you need to hold all of the following ideas in your head all at one time:

  1. It’s not the planet that needs saving. The world has been through major environmental upheaval over and over in its history, and generally everything comes back better than before eventually. What we’re talking about saving is the human race. Maybe. More likely, we’re talking about an outcome that would create massive problems for some percentage of the world’s population at some point in the future. Bad enough, but the distinction is worth remembering.
  2. Even the most grandiose solutions being bandied about, the ones that cost on the order of tens or hundreds of trillions of dollars, are not going to solve the problem. They reduce the rate of increase in temperatures — reversing those changes is farther off than what we’re talking about today.
  3. I love Malcolm Gladwell just like everyone else, but generally the concept of a tipping point is overstated when talking about most phenomena in the world, and this is likely the case with regard to the environment too.
  4. Scientists have a track record of overstating environmental emergencies, and overstating the extent to which these emergencies cannot be corrected once they’ve occurred. In my lifetime we’ve seen several supposedly-irreversible ecological disasters reversed after some human effort was expended towards fixing the causes. Bird populations were practically eradicated in the Everglades around 1990; today they’re restored and fine. Acid rain was a scourge on the US in the 80s; today its unheard of. Chernobyl today is a nature preserve where wild animals happily roam as they hadn’t for decades, because people have left it alone. The environment is self-correcting to a greater extent than we often realize.
  5. We are doing stuff about the environment. Political opinion worldwide is shifting (even in the US, which remember is the only nation in the world that didn’t sing the Kyoto Protocol), and “green technologies” are being developed and refined all the time. These two things feed each other — as people become more conscious of damage to the environment, they become more willing to adopt sustainable technologies. And as the demand for these technologies grows, they will become even more profitable, affordable, and ubiquitous. China is developing green tech, and it’s out of a pure profit motive — they know that they’ll be able to sell it to the Americans.
  6. In addition to this incremental improvement in pro-environment technology, there are bound to be technological sea-changes that make drastic improvements in ways we can’t envision right now. We can’t assume that they will make the problem disappear overnight (the way, for example, the horse manure problem was solved overnight), but we can expect that they’ll make significant improvements that are today unpredictable.
  7. If bad comes to worst, we have quick and dirty solutions to global warming that we can deploy. Yes people, it’s geo-engineering. The concept is simple: you pump sulfur dioxide or something into the atmosphere to shade some of the sun’s light from hitting the earth. It’s not pretty, but it works. Volcanic eruptions cause temporary global cooling, and there are things we could do to replicate those effects. It’s best not to talk about this stuff too much, because it undermines the impetus for the more substantial change that we need, but it’s good to know it’s there as an emergency brake.
  8. Yes, it’s terrible that global temperatures are rising. However, the catastrophic damage from this rise is still a pretty long way off. We’re talking something like 100 years. (Note that, even though the last decade has been .9 degrees warmer then the average temperature of the 20th century, the ocean hasn’t risen.)
  9. When it comes, the damage we’re talking about will boil down to economic damage, right? People being displaced, food shortages, etc. You can put this stuff in economic terms, and you need to put it into economic terms, so that you can compare the cost of the solution to the problem today with the cost of the solution to the problem in future money.

And this is where it gets complicated. The world is getting richer all the time, so that future money is a lot cheaper then today’s money. At least economically, a problem that can be fixed for $10 trillion today is not worth fixing if it can be fixed for $100 trillion in 100 years. The reason for that brings me back to the starving 7-year old in India and your Prius. We have massive problems in the world today. In fact, 16,000 children die every day of starvation. Millions of people die every year of easily preventable diseases like malaria. There are more slaves in the world today then at any other point in history. The list, I don’t have to tell you, goes on.

Money spent on some of these problems often goes a long way towards saving and improving the lives of real people living and dying today. So when we spend money on improving the environment of the future, we need to be aware of what we’re not using that money for right now. If you have an ounce of compassion in your body, you need to look at these opportunity costs with clear eyes. Is it better for you to buy a Prius, or to buy a Yaris and donate the difference to Oxfam? Is it better for the world to spend tens of trillions trying to reduce carbon emissions, or should we direct big chunks of that money towards fixing the very real problems that we have right now in the world today?

1 Yes, there is no scientific uncertainty about the fact that global warming exists, that it’s being caused by carbon emissions, and that human beings are causing it. Or rather, the uncertainty is among some fraction of one percent of scientists, who at this point are doing nothing but making a lavish living flying from one conservative asshole’s talk show to another and feeding the pathetic self-deception of ideological assholes. But make no mistake — there is vast uncertainty about the details, about the rate of change, and about the specific effects.

Update: In today’s Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg touches on many of these same notes (with some interesting specific figures), which makes sense, since his Ted Talk from a few years ago is what started me thinking down this path.

Posted: Tuesday December 15, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink ·

 

I just finished reading the article where Malcolm Gladwell compares football to dog fighting (persuasively!), and here comes Kottke with some suplementary links. You Americans, I tell ya!!

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Self Magazine recently “retouched” about 30 pounds off Kelly Clarkson for their cover photo. But that sort of thing is nothing new, right? What is entertaining here is what Lucy Danziger, Self’s editor, came up with when her handlers apparently told her to write an explanation that ‘yeah, of course we “retouch,” but it’s all about producing a self-confident and happy image, not about making someone look skinnier.’ Here’s what she came up with: “This is art, creativity and collaboration. It’s not, as in a news photograph, journalism. It is, however, meant to inspire women to want to be their best. That is the point.” The hypocrisy here is on par with politicians talking about Social Security. There is the widening gulf between reality and what can be acceptably said, and there is the requirement for people willing to talk around that gulf. (via)

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Please do not try your wishy-washy corporate shit on Steve, because he does not go for it and he will take up inordinate amounts of your company’s time to get his way. Nice work!

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A guy who’s blog name I might have stolen makes a delicate comparison between getting his foot shat on and accepting money for blogging. At great great length. Huh.

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Duh, of course I am going to eat your food.

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‘College prep’ is a crime. This is wonderful.

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HA!: Finally someone pointed out the 2-tiered question of torture that usually gets conflated — Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Watch a 17 second excerpt or the whole episode.

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Torture memos released! “These ten techniques are: (1) attention grasp (2) walling (3) facial hold (4) facial slap (insult slap) (5) cramped confinement (6) wall standing (7) stress positions (8) sleep deprivation (9) insects placed in a confinement box and (10) waterboard. You have informed us that the use of these techniques would be on an as-needed basis and that not all of these techniques will necessarily be used.” The ACLU has the complete scans for your reading displeasure. Or, if you want instant ungratification, skip to the “update” section here and just read some choice excerpts and commentary.

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So the ‘real horror’ of ‘Make PINK Not War’ wasn’t that it said nothing, helped nothing, arbitrarily divorced modern struggles from historical ones, made everyone stupider, cost real money for fake pleasure. The sin didn’t belong to the teenager in the café – she’s gone now, I’m alone here with my preoccupations – nor even to those who made and sold her the bag, who were guilty only of greed and lack of imagination (which are of course the same thing). The sin was the belief that children are happy being belittled and infantilized, popular culture(s) that provided only meaningless choices – fashion – and force-fed children mere pleasure at the expense of real joy.

Waxy Banks rants about Hollister, stupid teenagers, and greed.

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Not the end of philosophy

As Republicans go, David Brooks is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful writers we have. However, this week he dropped a real howler. The title is, The End of Philosophy, and it goes downhill from there. The gist goes thus:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that.

Brooks goes on to cite some basic evolutionary theory (as if he’d only just discovered it) to support his claim, and at some length concludes that it is all very well and good for us to be guided by instinct as we make moral decisions. My reaction to this argument, generally made by people much less intelligent then Brooks, can best be expressed by an interpretative dance. But my camera has been acting a little buggy, so let me try to put it into words.

I’m struck by the similarity to the analogy Franklin Einspruch made between food and art. Yes, you know whether something tastes good without having to think about it. But deciding whether a piece of art is good is quite a different process, informed however subtly by whatever art education and exposure to other work one has had. It may seem instinctual, but that instinct is honed by a lifetime of experience. (I recommend reading Franklin’s post and the 114 comments that followed over three days. My own response is mostly in comment #74.)

Finding a similarity between taste in food and a taste in art may be flawed, but to extend it to a taste in ethics is just absurd. Brooks cleverly gets us nodding along in the second paragraph by observing that those who study ethics are no more likely to behave ethically than the rest of us. Fine and dandy, but the academic study of the philosophy of ethics is something quite apart from the process we all go through, as we mature, of deciding how we shall govern ourselves in life.

I think that Julian Savulescu on the ‘Yuk’ Factor, a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (pardon the British spelling of the word “yuck”), directly refutes Brooks’ line of thinking. We have innate tendencies, and we have ethical principles adopted from our parents, and we have the capacity as intelligent humans to think through and decide whether we want to adopt these tendencies and principles. For example, as Savulescu points out, homophobia and racism may well be based on innate evolutionary instincts (for sure they are often learned from parents).

Yet many intelligent people are able to reason through to the conclusion that homophobia and racism are completely indefensible moral positions. Thus our rational, philosophical, thoughtful self trains our ethical instinct — trains the yuck factor, as it were. Brooks is correct that we make snap judgments as we go about our daily lives, but he is profoundly and disappointingly incorrect to think that moral reasoning and yes, even philosophizing, do not enter into the picture of developing our ethics.

Posted: Wednesday April 8, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [11]

 

Taking a photo of something as it's happening

Whirling Dervishes

There is a whole body of literature, going back at least to Susan Sontag, that argues against photography. The process of making a photograph distracts you from experiencing the thing itself, distorts the relationship between subject and the viewer, and creates a visual record that is inevitably later perceived as somehow more real than memory. To be honest, I’ve always found these sorts of arguments to be overblown. I let instinct be my guide about when to bring a camera with me (almost all the time) and when to use it. And I couldn’t honestly tell you of a time when I regretted making a photo because of the imposition it created on the experience.

Until this weekend. The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi performed (actually I’m not sure that’s the right verb) at the Arsht Center, and I had a relatively great box seat. The way this works is that the evening is over two hours long, opening with a musical performance, explanations of the meanings of the dance, a movie, more music, then the solemn entrance of the Mevlevi themselves, followed by the actual ceremony. The point is that there is a major buildup of a particular type of a solemn mood, which elevates the already daunting trance-like spiritual weight of the event.

So I wasn’t going to take a picture. And then all these other idiots started in. Now, photography is “strictly prohibited” at the Arsht Center, and having worked around the performing arts I know that the two primary concerns are (1) your photographing distracts the person next to you, and (2) the flash, stupid, which distracts everybody, most especially the performers (which in the case of dance is actually dangerous). Needless to say that there were at least a dozen camera flashes from around the audience. So first of all, you people are stupid. You haven’t read your manual, you don’t know how to control the camera, you have no regard for anyone else but yourself, and you did not get a photograph, because your flash covers approximately three meters (10 feet), and you weren’t sitting in the first few rows (thank Jesus).

But so somehow these idiots made me think that my taking a picture the right way (ISO set to maximum, exposure compensation -2 stops, flash off, autofocus assist light off, sound disabled, continuous shutter on) was somehow permissible. I held my shutter down for about a second, got three frames, and put the camera away. And yes, the moment was destroyed. But you know what? It came back. The thing is that if you’re discreet about this (my friend sitting two seats down didn’t know I took a picture until I showed her later afterward) it’s really not that big of a deal.

There is something to be said here about the trade-off between imposition of technology and quality of photograph (contrast the ubiquity of the cell phone with a 4×5 camera), but mostly a pocket camera is a decent trade off.

The thing that it comes down to for me is that looking at a photograph years later brings back the memory of an event more vividly than anything else. There are many reasons for making a photo, but the marking of something as worthy of vivid memory is perhaps the best.

Posted: Monday February 9, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [12]

 

This is the funniest thing I have heard so far this year.

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A fitting near-conclusion to a disgraceful history: AOL shuts down scores of user websites with minimal warning. And Jason’s right — everyone spending hours and hours on Facebook is risking the same fate. There need to be laws for how sites hosting user content are shut down, just as there area laws governing physical evictions. (via Waxy)

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In support of Sarah Palin because in support of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin as a youth, hunting Hey, I happen to like Sarah Palin too. For whatever her level of experience, she has the right attitude, and that’s still got to be the most important qualification for a president. And to draw a chess metaphor, her pick as vice presidential running mate is like an even exchange of rooks (or something), since it neutralizes whatever attacks Republicans would have about Barack Obama’s lack of experience, while the attacks of the few Democrats who say her experience is substantially lower then Obama’s is easily discredited.

Here’s what’s interesting at this moment in the election process: As the conservative intellectuals line up against her, and as the latest round of criticisms and refutations of the McCain campaign’s claims in her favor (a few e.g’s: 1. Yes, she was for that “bridge to nowhere,” up until it became obvious the Congress would reject it; 2. No, she has not been to Iraq, and has “been to” Ireland, as claimed, in the sense that a plane she never got off stopped there to refuel; 3. as of latest, she will not be cooperating with the troopergate investigation; 4. maybe, this), Bill Bennett, one of the conservative intellectuals still standing in her support, went on the Today Show.

When presented with the latest series series of embarrassments and refutations of the points of experience the McCain campaign has cooked up for Palin, Bennett’s response was something like (paraphrasing), “sure, the Republican party intellectuals are turning against her, but most people don’t care about this stuff, and her support among average voters is still strong.”

We pause now while I confess to a pet peeve. “Begging the question” is a phrase that has gone beyond being abused in casual conversation, and is not being flagrantly abused by people on stages and on the television who ought to know better. I’m not normally a language pedant, but, um, I do not think that expression means what you think it means. “Begs the question,” has a specific meaning which is worth preserving. Try “raises the question” next time you want to use the former expression, and I think you’ll find yourself much better served. And while you’re at it, look up the meaning if you need to, and you’ll find yourself interestingly educated.

Anyway. To the extent that there’s any sense left in the world, people base their opinions in significant part on information they get from the news. So here’s Bill Bennett being asked to respond to the criticisms against Sarah Palin, and his response is (paraphrasing again), “even with all this criticism, people still like her.” Dude! Your job is to tell people what they should think, and that’s the best you got? Addressing this to a guy who should care, you, sir, are begging the question.

Image: photo of Sarah Palin as a youth, shortly after hunging, with her catch. Talk to me about how she wanted to ban books, but do not tell me she is not cool, America.

Posted: Thursday September 18, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [24]

 

Barack Obama for lifetime dictator

Hey, I know you love Obama, and you’re thrilled that he’s going to be our next president. And I hate to burst your bubble. But the simple fact is that it’s not going to be enough. The country is headed down the tubes in a way that no president will be able to fix.

E.g., let’s talk health care. Obama’s healthcare plan (very similar to Clinton’s, if said similarity hasn’t been sufficiently pointed out) is radical enough to be tarred by republicans, drug companies, and the insurance industry. But it fails to bring about key changes that independent industry experts agree will need to happen. For two examples: (1) Change the way doctors are compensated. An article from last year’s New York Times terms it this way:

In the United States, nearly all doctors are paid piecemeal, for each test or procedure they perform, rather than a flat salary. As a result, physicians have financial incentives to perform procedures that further drive up overall health care spending.

Doctors are paid little for routine examinations and very little for “cognitive services,” such as researching different treatment options or offering advice to help patients get better without treatment.

“I don’t have a view on whether doctors take home too much money or not enough money,” Dr. Bach said. “The problem is the way they earn their money. They have to do stuff. They have to do procedures.”

(2) The insurance companies: by their very nature, they make a profit when most folks paying into their system stay healthy while a relative few get sick. Therefore, if universal healthcare is the goal, then removing the profit of the insurance companies is unquestionably desirable.

Yet as much as it’s a step in the right direction, Obama’s plan doesn’t even aspire to address either of these two simple issues. The reason is political.

First, understand that healthcare reform is politically feasible today (when it wasn’t in the early 90s) is because corporations are now feeling the pain of our nation’s increasingly insane medical costs. But amorphous corporate will can only push so hard against the lobbying interests of the drug/insurance cartel. Hence Obama’s plan, which goes exactly as far as it possibly can in today’s political climate. Suggest enacting the more drastic changes that Obama, his advisers, and all honest industry analysts know need to enacted, and his plan will be shot down just as Hillary Clinton was shot down in the early days of her husband’s administration.

One other quick example, more significant but easier to explain: Social Security and Medicare. Check out the second chart on this page, which points out that these two programs, left unchecked, will positively swallow the federal budget over the next few decades if left unchecked. Note that every year we put off reforms adds one trillion dollars to the cost (and that’s according to Republicans!). Yet no candidate dares to go near this issue with a ten foot pole, because the very mention of anything like a sacrifice in this area is political suicide for anyone seeking re-election (or, of course, 1st-time-election). For his part, Obama is singing the Cut Government Waste song.

So. Obama can get elected, and then drop the truth on us, right? Well, even putting aside the re-election imperative, he can’t. Because, as Jon Stewart so eloquently put it, “the President doesn’t make laws.” Congress makes laws, and since every member of congress is up for re-election every two years, we’re right back to the same corporation-run political election system.

In other words: the change that we need — that everyone smart knows we need — cannot be brought about by Barack Obama, President. Now, if you believe that Obama is a very very smart guy, then you know that he knows that his solutions are somewhat half-assed, and that he’s ignoring some difficult truths, all out of political necesity. It probably pains him, but he also knows that he can do at least some good as president, even if he’d lack the power to make the changes this country really needs.

But now suppose we make Barack Obama “Dictator for Life.” Maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds. All it would really entail is two slight changes in the political structure: (1) give him the power to do whatever he wants (e.g. pass laws without congressional approval, toss out a couple of supreme court justices, etc.) and (2) let him stay in power “indefinitely.”

Every time I bring this up I get dirty stares and mumbles of “Hitler” tossed in my direction. Bullcrap. Hitler made his racism well known in his campaign. Barack Obama on the other hand is making obvious his fair-mindedness, reasonableness, and intelligence. Who honestly thinks he’d abuse a position like “Dictator for Life”? Nobody. He’d stay in power just as long as it took to get us out of the messy corner our democracy has painted itself into (Have I even mentioned the climate crisis yet? The percentage of world carbon emissions the USA is responsible for? Hell hath no fury like Google.), then step down and allow our previously scheduled constitutional government to pick up where it’d previously left off. We’ve survived 8 years of George W. Bush playing de-facto dictator — a properly declared and benign dictator would not only be an effective fix, it might also be a refreshing change.

A wise man on cable TV pointed out sometime in the last 7 years that Osama Bin Laden sort of had a point with the WTC bombings, in the sense that, as a democracy, we individual citizens are responsible for what our government does. Regardless of how many times you voted for GWB, you are responsible for for his actions in a way that no Iraqi will ever be responsible for anything that Saddam Hussein did. As such, the killing of citizens in a democracy makes pragmatic sense, whereas the killing of citizens in a dictatorship is mere cruelty.

But my argument isn’t that we should make Obama dictator out of fear — we should do it out of strenght: sooner or later we will have to confront the Islamic Jihadists at a negotiation table. This sounds like an anathema, but the historical fact is that this is the only way that terrorists groups can be dealt with once they’re allowed to take root. Witness now-peaceful Ireland if you need evidence. Knowing that Obama has our confidence beyond some hard-edged 4-year election cycle timetable will give him the edge that will ensure his ability to diffuse the situation.

A standard two-term presidential run is nearly a decade. We elected FDR to four terms. Is an open-ended term really so unthinkable? For most would-be leaders it may well be. But here’s a guy who would know what to do with the power, and who’d know when it was time to step down.

Digg this?

Posted: Thursday June 26, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [13]