March 04, 2014
Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ is moral hazard in action. It is a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators – from the executives to ground control to the pilot – for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety. A spaceship with no autopilot, no fuel reserves, and no contingency margin in its fuel calculations.
‘‘The Cold Equations’’ ... barks at us that now is not the time for pointing fingers, because there is an emergency. It says that now is the time to pull together, the time for all foolish girls to die to save brave explorers from certain death, and not the time for assigning blame.
But if a crisis of your own making isn’t the time to lay blame, then the optimal strategy is to ensure that the crisis never ends.
February 14, 2014
But that's how it is with rhinos.
February 13, 2014
When the Balinese prepare a corpse for burial, they read stories to one another, ordinary stories from collections of their most familiar tales. They read them without stopping, twenty-four hours a day, for two or three days at a time, not because they need distraction but because of the danger of demons. Demons possess souls during the vulnerable period immediately after a death, but stories keep them out. Like Chinese boxes or English hedges, the stories contain tales within tales, so that as you enter one you run into another, passing from plot to plot every time you turn a corner, until at last you reach the core of the narrative space, which corresponds to the place occupied by the corpse within the inner courtyard of the household. Demons cannot penetrate this space because they cannot turn corners. They beat their heads helplessly against the narrative maze that the readers have built, and so reading provides a kind of defense fortification surrounding Balinese ritual. It creates a wall of words, which operates like the jamming of radio broadcasts. It does not amuse, instruct, improve, or help to while away the time: by the imbrication of narrative and the cacophony of sound, it protects souls.
Ibid., Chapter 6.
February 12, 2014
[T]he relation between information and ideology in the Encyclopedie raises some general issues about the connection between knowledge and power. Consider, for example, a totally different kind of learned book, the Chinese encyclopedia imagined by Jorge Luis Borges and discussed by Michel Foucault in The Order of Things. It divided animals into: “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.” This classification system is significant, Foucault argues, because of the sheer impossibility of thinking it. By bringing us up short against an inconceivable set of categories, it exposes the arbitrariness of the way we sort things out. We order the world according to categories that we take for granted simply because they are given. They occupy an epistemological space that is prior to thought, and so they have extraordinary staying power. When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone. Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned. We classify a Pekinese and a Great Dane together as dogs without hesitating, even though the Pekinese might seem to have more in common with a cat and the Great Dane with a pony. if we stopped to reflect on definitions of “dogness” or on the other categories for sorting out life, we could never get on with the business of living.
Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power. A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the “soft” rather than the “hard” sciences, may wither on the vine. A misshelved book may disappear forever. An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated. All social action flows through boundaries determined by classification schemes, whether or not they are elaborated as explicitly as library catalogues, organization charts, arid university departments. All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology. Monsters like the “elephant man” and the “wolf boy” horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, 3 and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between. categories: “slimy” reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, “nasty” rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication. We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel. “Squirrel” can be a term of endearment, as in Helmet’s epithet for Nora in A Doll’s House. Yet squirrels are rodents, as dangerous and disease-ridden as rats. They seem less threatening because they belong unambiguously to the out-of-doors. It is the in-between animals, the neitherfish-nor-fowl, that have special powers and therefore ritual value: thus the cassowaries in the mystery cults of New Guinea and the tomcats in the witches’ brews of the West. Hair, fingernail parings, and feces also go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world. All borders are dangerous. If left unguarded, they could break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.
Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business. A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo. Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous. Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another. It has bite. Thus Diderot and d’Alembert took enormous risks when they undid the old order of knowledge and drew new lines between the known and the unknown.
from The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton, rev. ed. 1984, Chapter 5.
February 08, 2014
At the Global Mail, "At Work Inside our Detention Centres: A Guard's Story - An Illustrated Interview from Inside Australia's Immigration Detention System".
This guy came in and introduced himself as our trainer... He told us: "...The Department wants us to call them clients so we call them clients. If they told us to call them hamsters we'd call them hamsters. But we know they're detainees."That was before, of course.
February 07, 2014
... the Chelsea Hotel was a place where the zeds were hard to catch. It was easier to catch a bedbug: in the middle of the first night, I found two in the bedding, stuck them in a glass and presented them at reception, in hope of a refund, but I was dispatched to another room instead. I stripped the new bed down, doused the sheets and blankets with vodka, remade it, and lay on the covers like an olive in a very damp Martini...
February 01, 2014
My hovercraft is full of eels.
Re phrase, see also, also. (TVTropes appear to have the nature of the original Python sketch backwards: it's a Hungarian gentleman who is attempting to buy matches and says "My hovercraft is full of eels", not an English speaker who wants matches and remarks "A légpárnás járművem tele van angolnával." Just so we're clear.)
January 31, 2014
Apart from providing all the evidence you would need to demonstrate that if we were to approach, say, America, or Europe, or anywhere, and whimper about our terrible, terrible refugee problem, they would laugh in our face, the Global Mail's asylum infographics also turn up the following bizarre coincidence:
So, there's that.
January 18, 2014
It’s now known that the brush of a single tentacle is enough to induce “Irukandji syndrome.” It sets in twenty to thirty minutes after a sting so minor it leaves no mark, and is often not even felt. Pain is initially focused in the lower back. Soon the entire lumbar region is gripped by debilitating cramps and pounding pain—as if someone is taking a baseball bat to your kidneys. Then comes the nausea and vomiting, which continues every minute or so for around twelve hours. Shooting spasms grip the arms and legs, blood pressure escalates, breathing becomes difficult, and the skin begins to creep, as if worms are burrowing through it. Victims are often gripped with a sense of “impending doom” and in their despair beg their doctors to put them out of their misery.From Tim Flannery's review of Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean in the New York Review of Books.
January 13, 2014
What motivates the authors of all this stuff? Ego must play its part, but it’s interesting that the criterion for ‘success’ is a kind of oblivion for the creator. A winning copypasta is one that’s copied and pasted — one that gets circulated and shared, blending into urban myth, FOAFlore, netlore. The role of the author is not to be remembered down the ages; it is to disappear. In this respect, creepypasta appears to brush aside 250 years of authorial gothic, weird and horror fiction, returning shudder-making to its cultural roots. With its rituals and shared experiences, it seems more social than artistic. Scary stories, after all, serve social purposes: they help us to learn which fears are widely held and which are idiosyncratic, defining us as societies and delineating us as individuals.Will Wiles, in Aeon magazine.
Now, of course, these efforts at scaring ourselves have been scaled up and networked; better yet, they are being tested in unforgiving Darwinian arenas, where the weakest drop from view while the fittest survive to get copied, linked and spread across the internet. We find ourselves with a sudden flood of data about contemporary anxieties — data that is surely ripe for analysis, maybe even psychoanalysis. Creepypasta is a way of learning what frightens us in the network age.
November 22, 2013
When he began to run the game it became immediately clear that Machiguengan behavior was dramatically different from that of the average North American. To begin with, the offers from the first player were much lower. In addition, when on the receiving end of the game, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. “It just seemed ridiculous to the Machiguenga that you would reject an offer of free money,” says Henrich. “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”Well, yes...
Henrich’s work with the ultimatum game emerged from a small but growing counter trend in the social sciences, one in which researchers look straight at the question of how deeply culture shapes human cognition...
Some of this research went back a generation. It was in the 1960s that researchers discovered that aspects of visual perception varied from place to place. One of the classics of the literature, the Müller-Lyer illusion, showed that where you grew up determined to what degree you would fall prey to the illusion that these two lines are different in length.
Researchers found that Americans perceive the line with the ends feathered outward as being longer than the line with the arrow tips. San foragers of the Kalahari, on the other hand, were more likely to see the lines as they are: equal in length. Subjects from more than a dozen cultures were tested, and Americans were at the far end of the distribution – seeing the illusion more dramatically than all others.
The most interesting thing about cultures may not be in the observable things they do – the rituals, eating preferences, codes of behavior, and the like – but in the way they mold our most fundamental conscious and unconscious thinking and perception. The different ways people perceive the Müller-Lyer illusion reflects lifetimes spent in different physical environments. American children, for the most part, grow up in box-shaped rooms of varying dimensions. Surrounded by carpentered corners, visual perception adapts to this strange new environment (strange and new in terms of human history, that is) by learning to perceive converging lines in three dimensions. When unconsciously translated in three dimensions, the line with the outward-feathered ends appears farther away and the brain therefore judges it to be longer. The more time one spends in natural environments, where there are no carpentered corners, the less one sees the illusion.
The turn ... is not an easy one; accounting for the influence of culture on cognition will be a herculean task. Cultures are not monolithic; they can be endlessly parsed. Ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, economic status, parenting styles, rural upbringing versus urban or suburban – there are hundreds of cultural differences that individually and in endless combinations influence our conceptions of fairness, how we categorize things, our method of judging and decision making, and our deeply held beliefs about the nature of the self, among other aspects of our psychological makeup.
The prisoner’s dilemma is a theoretical tool, but there are plenty of parallel choices – and free riders – in the real world. People who are always late for appointments with others don’t have to hurry or wait for others. Some use roads and hospitals without paying their taxes. There are lots of interesting reasons why most of us turn up on time and don’t avoid paying taxes, even though these might be the selfish “rational” choices according to most economic models.
Crucially, rational actor theory appears more useful for predicting the actions of certain groups of people. One group who have been found to free ride more than others in repeated studies is people who have studied economics... Economics students “informed on” other players 60% of the time, while those studying other subjects did so 39% of the time. Men have previously been found to be more self-interested in such tests, and more men study economics than women. However even after controlling for this sex difference, ... economics students were 17% more likely to take the selfish route when playing the prisoner’s dilemma.
November 21, 2013
The last meal as a cultural phenomenon grew even as capital punishment faded from public view, and in less than two centuries the country has gone from grisly public hangings, in which the prisoner was sometimes unintentionally decapitated or left to suffocate, to lethal injection, the most common form of execution in America today, in which death is “administered.” The condemned are often sedated before execution. They are generally not allowed to listen to music, lest it induce an emotional reaction. Last words are sometimes delivered in writing, rather than spoken; if they are spoken, it might be to prison personnel rather than the witnesses. The detachment is so complete that when scholar Robert Johnson, for his 1998 book Death Work, asked an execution-team officer what his job was, the officer replied: “the right leg.”