Welcome to the new www.byshenk.net page

This is yet another new version of my site. The last version had been running for more than ten years, so it seemed time to update.

The new site uses WordPress instead of Geeklog, but I’ve transferred the relevant content over from the old site. Most of it is extremely old, but could conceiveably be of interest to someone. I haven’t transferred the comments, as most of them are extremely old, and very few are anything but spam. I may do so in the future. 

I don’t think this site will change much more often than the last one. But that could change; there were some periods of regular activity in the past.

Of course, I have at least some useful content here, most notably my Help! I’ve Been Spammed! What do I do? FAQ, as well as other useful net abuse information. This is somewhat out of date, but not completely useless.

This site is hosted on a VPS at TransIP, with whom I am quite satisfied.

I can’t handle the truth!

(Originally published 30 June 2014)

I am shocked — shocked!– to discover that there is gambling going on… – Captain Renault

The recent paper, Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks has raised a storm of controversy. Some comments have been interesting, others misinformed or misguided, at least in my view. But what struck me most strongly about at least one part of the reaction is its congruence with other discussion, such some of that around Google Glass, in that some people seem to object to being informed that something is happening.

In the case of the Facebook study, there seem to be many objecting to the fact that Facebook is reorganizing their newsfeed to engage in the study. Yet one must strain mightily even to pretend ignorance of the fact that Facebook can reorganize one’s newfeed. After all, the basic difference between ‘top stories’ and ‘most recent’ is that the first involves Facebook manipulating one’s newsfeed in order to present what Facebook’s systems think is most appropriate.

And, of course, as Randall Munroe cleverly noted, no user has any real idea of what algorithms might be used there.

More generally, it can (or at least should) hardly be a surprise to any reasonably informed individual that microtargeting is now regularly being used to market everything from beer to political candidates, and further, that such microtarging involves manipulating what is presented to the user/reader/viewer based upon algorithms designed to have the most/best effect upon that user.

In short, such manipulation is already extremely widespread, not just on Facebook, but all over the Internet/Web. The biggest difference between the recent published experiment and the rest is that the researchers chose to make the information public, rather than keeping it secret.

In my mind, this almost directly parallels much of the uproar over the use of Google Glass.

It is not the only one, but certainly one significant strain of the objection to Google Glass is that “s/he might be filming or taking pictures of me without me knowing!”

But certainly anyone likely to come into regular contact with Google Glass users cannot be unaware of the fact that, in any place that one is likely to find a Google Glass user, one is almost certain also to find a whole collection of smart phone users, each of whom is carrying a recording device, and each of whom could easily be filming or taking photographs without others’ knowledge. Anyone “reading” from a device could easily be filming the surroundings, as could anyone holding a mobile phone to her ear — and in these cases those in the surrounding area would think nothing of it.

(And this is without considering such things as intentionally “hidden” recording devices, that one can now easily purchase online for less than fifteen dollars.)

All of which is why any location that is truly concerned about recording prohibits the use of any recording devices, including any use of smartphones or other devices that could contain cameras.

The parallell with the Facebook objections seems to me to be that, with Google Glass, what must be the real concern is knowledge of the possibility of recording. It cannot reasonably be the mere possibility of recording itself, because that possibility exists wherever one finds smartphones (at least!), and the vast majority of those objecting to Glass do not at the same time object to smartphones.

All of which seems very odd, in that in both of these cases, the strenuous objection seems to be, not to the activities themselves, but to being informed about the activities. What such objectors seem to be saying is: “I don’t want to know! Give me my illusions!”

More strange arguments about Cyprus

(Originally published 21 March 2013)

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has reposted Cyprus Bailout: Stupidity, Short-Sightedness, Something Else?, an article by Antonis Polemitis and Andreas Kitsios that originally appeared at Cyprus.com.

The article has a number of problems, not least of which is that it suggests that “this was not something that the Cyprus government invented – it was forced on them by the Troika”, despite the fact that it was Cyprus’s representatives in the negotiations who rejected plans that did not hit small depositors. But it is more confused on a deeper level.

It could be that when Polemitis and Kitsios write “forced on them by the Troika” what they mean is not the particular deal itself, but the need to make a deal. They write that

Anastassiades was ambushed when the troika said to him: “Agree to depositor bail-in as part of the financial package or the ECB will cut off funding to Laiki on Tuesday” causing a surprise collapse of our banking sector.

But there’s a problem with this version, because earlier in the same article, when describing the various banks in Cyprus, they write “Laiki is definitely insolvent and needs to be restructured.” If this is so, then t”cut[ting] off funding to Laiki” is exactly what the ECB should do and should not be a “surprise”. The ECB’s emergency liquidity facility is meant, as its name indicates, to provide emergency liquidity, not to provide an bottomless funding source for banks that are “definitely insolvent”.

No doubt the best course of action would be to restructure Laiki, but Cypus seems not to want to do that. Indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal, Christine Lagarde proposed that only the accounts of the problem banks be charged:

The IMF chief presented a much more radical plan, in which deposits above #100,000 in La iki and Bank of Cyprus would have been cut by between 30% and 40%. The owners of senior bonds in the two banks would also have faced losses-a step that was ultimately rejected.

It may be true, as Polemitis and Kitsios write, that

What is even more absurd is that this is not a bail-in of Depositors of Bank A to rescue Bank A, but a bail-in of Depositors of Banks A-Z to rescue Depositors of Bank A (Laiki), B (Bank of Cyprus) and C (maybe some small amounts to the others).

… but this “absurdity” is not the fault of the Troika. The Troika suggested “a bail-in of Depositors of Bank A to rescue Bank A,” but such was unacceptable to the Cypriot delegation.

It is no doubt true that Cyprus preferred no depositor “bail-in”, and that “both the President and Minister of Finance said: ‘No depositor haircuts…'” The problem is that this is plainly unrealistic. As Polemitis and Kitsios point out, Cyprus’s “banks are almost 100% deposit funded”. This is a good thing, in general, but it also means that, in the case of bank insolvency, there is no one other than depositors to receive a haircut. In the negotiations, the Cypriots were unwilling to give haircuts to those who deserved it, and thus ended up giving haircuts to everyone. But that was the choice of the Cypriots, not the Troika.

One final point, which is less important. As a defense of Cyprus’s banking system, Polemitis and Kitsios point out that “Banking assets are about 7.1x GDP relative to the EU average of 3.5x GDP and similar to Ireland and Malta.” While true, this is slightly misleading absent the further information (present in a different article) that ” financial services […] accounts for 45% of Cyprus GDP.” Which puts a slightly different colour on the “7.1x GDP” figure.

Cyprus is a bit like Ireland, but not because of the EU

(Originally published 20 March 2013)

In a posting at the Guardian, Costas Lapavitsas compares the banking crises in Ireland, Iceland, and Cyprus, claiming that “Ireland followed a certain path, determined by the troika and membership of the EMU”, and that “[t]he deal currently offered to Cyprus by the troika is along the path of Ireland”, whereas “Iceland followed a radically different path, as it is free of the troika and not a member of the EMU.”

I submit that, while there is a great deal of similarity between the cases of Ireland and Cyprus– and difference from that of Iceland — such similarity has little or nothing to do with the EU.

The EU, or the ECB, or the troika, are convenient whipping boys for European politicians and commentators, and sometimes deservedly so, but this does not seem to be one of those times.

In the case of Ireland, it was Ireland (or the sitting Irish government at the time) that created the problem. Its banks were badly run with poor oversight, which — not surprisingly — led to trouble when the financial bubble burst. In the face of this trouble, the Irish government chose not to let the banks fail or to restructure them, but instead to guarantee all lending to Irish banks, without limitation to the EU-standard of EUR 100,000. The result was that, when the banks could not honor their debts, the Irish state was responsible for them.

The role of the EU in this matter was limited to insisting that the Irish state honor the commitments it had made in choosing to guarantee all bank debt.

The case of Cyprus is similar. The role of the trioka has been to offer a loan of “only” 10 thousand million euros, arguing (reasonably, in the opinion of many) that a loan almost equal to Cyprus’s entire GDP is not realistic. The details of the agreement arrived at, with small as well as large depositors being required to pay, were at the insistence of the Cypriots, not the troika.

Certainly Cyprus could have acted similarly to Iceland, by restructuring their banks and/or putting the costs onto the large depositors (those accounts above the EUR 100,000 guarantee level), but the Cypriots chose a different course. Perhaps the Cypriots felt that putting the costs on large depositors would put at risk the flow of money into and through Cyprus, and that it was important to preserve the contours of their banking system. But that was a choice the Cypriots made.

“Leverage” in online education

(Originally published 26 November 2012)

“Online education” has become a hot topic recently, with major universities as well as new startups jumping onto the bandwagon. Not without reason, of course. That said, a great deal of the discussion seems to me to be misguided.

Perhaps I am out of line, being neither a professor nor even an educator, but I found Alex Tabarrok’s recent Why Online Education Works to capture much of what is misguided in that discussion.

Tabarrok writes:

I see three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.

These sound like fine things. If online education provides a way to “leverage” the abilities of “the best teachers”, provides as good or better learning in a shorter time, as well as better “individualized teaching”, then who could object? (I leave aside the matter of “new technologies”, as that is relevant only to the extent that such technologies actually provide an advantage to education; technology for its own sake is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage.)

Unfortunately, Tabarrok goes wrong immediately. Directly following the paragraph above, he writes:

The importance of leverage was brought home to me by a personal anecdote. In 2009, I gave a TED talk on the economics of growth. Since then my 15 minute talk has been watched nearly 700,000 times. That is far fewer views than the most-watched TED talk, Ken Robinson’s 2006 talk on how schools kill creativity, which has been watched some 26 million times. Nonetheless, the 15 minutes of teaching I did at TED dominates my entire teaching career: 700,000 views at 15 minutes each is equivalent to 175,000 student-hours of teaching, more than I have taught in my entire offline career.

I cannot help be see this as fundamenally mistaken. Leaving aside the manyconcernsvoicedabout TED talks, and leaving aside that, at least on my viewing, there was little or no “education” occurring in Tabarrok’s TED Talk — it was essentially a spoken op-ed piece that boils down to “the best is yet to come” because “ideas will drive growth” — there seems to me to be something fundamentally mistaken in equating a TED Talk with education. Certainly the best TED Talks succeed in teaching something, although it will need to be something relatively simple, but this is not what ‘teaching’ is about, at least inthe sense of providing an education.

Lecturing, involving a professor standing in front of a classroom (or appearing on a computer screen), may well be a part of teaching, but it is hardly the whole. And this is illustrated, unintentionally, by Tabarrok in the the second section of his essay.

Discussing “Time Savings”, Tabarrok writes:

In putting together our first [online] course, Development Economics, we were surprised to discover that we could teach a full course in less than half the lecture time of an offline course. A large part of the difference is that online lectures need not be repetitive. […] In an online lecture it pays to be concise. Online, the student is in control and can choose when and what to repeat.

The problem with this view is that it misses what teaching is about. I suspect everyone who has been to university has experienced, or at least heard of, one of the paradigmatic “bad teachers”, who, when asked a question by a student who did not understand something, simply repeated what he said the first time, generally leaving no one any further along in their understanding.

Such teaching is bad teaching because it fails in its interaction with the student. Real teaching requires engagement with the student in order to discover what it is that the student fails to grasp and from there find a way to direct the student towards an understanding. Or, in the other direction, to discover what it is that the student is attempting to express, in order to point the student toward an effective way of expressing it. Such cannot occur in a purely unidirectional lecture, whether it appears on a computer screen or in a lecture hall. (Although even in a large lecture hall, the lecturer is likely to receive some feedback from his audience regarding how well they are following what is said, something that is not possible in a pre-recorded video.)

On the subject of lecturing, Tabarrok notes that

Oxford in 2012 teaches students in ways remarkably similar to Oxford in 1096, seated students listening to professors in a classroom.

It may be that professors lectured in the mediaeval university because books were rare, but it is important to note that the lecture did not disappear when books became common. Indeed, if a professor simply passed out books at the beginning of term and said “read these and come back for the exam”, such would not be considered “teaching” at all. But a uniderectional lecture (on- or off-line) is no different than handing the student a textbook and walking away.[*]

To be fair to Tabarrok, he does not say that online students should do nothing more than watch videos. Indeed, addressing “Individualized Teaching”, he writes:

The conventional wisdom is that the classroom allows for more questions. The truth, however, is that the online space is a better place both for asking questions and for interacting with professors and other students. Put aside that students from all over the world can ask questions online. The problem is that a classroom lecture is constrained by the costs of coordination to begin and end at a time fixed in advance. If every student in a class of 50 asked one question per lecture there would be no time for the lecture. In contrast, questions can be asked at any time in an online lecture, and they do not impede the lecture.

This is true, and is what leads to experiments such as flipping the classroom or virtual office hours. But there’s a problem for Tabarrok’s position, which is that this runs directly in conflict with his first claimed “advantage” of online education.

Tabarrok here seems to acknowledge that real education requires engagement with the student, and this conflicts with the idea of “leverage”. Interacting with students takes time, and there are no “short cuts” in doing so. A professor has only so much time available for such interaction, and it makes not a lot of difference whether his office hours are real or virtual. A professor cannot actually teach 500 students, let alone 5000.

Of course, Tabarrok gestures at “Computer-adaptive learning”, but it is important to note that his example is to a work of science fiction. Yes, at some point in the future we may develop actual teaching software, but at present such seems limited to more “rote” learning, such as mathematics. Doing more than this, say at the level of university education, is still not possible. And, because it will require something like intelligence (if perhaps not actual ‘artificial intelligence’), we cannot say that it is on the horizon. Which means that, at least for the foreseaable future, real teaching, involving interaction with the student, will place significant limits on the possibilities for “leverage”.

All of which leads me to think that there might be something else hiding behind the idea of ‘leverage’: the concept of ‘leverage’ as used in finance, meaning using someone else’s wealth to make money for oneself. I generally avoid speculating as to motives, but Tabarrok seems to encourage such an interpretation, writing:

The parallel between movies and plays and online and offline education has further lessons. First, the market for teachers will become more like the market for actors, a winner-take-all market with greater inequality and very big payments at the top. A principal player on Broadway might earn $62,500 a year, perhaps twice what a minor player might earn.[3] One of the biggest stars in the world, Julia Roberts, made $35,000 a week, or $1.62 million in a 50-week year performing in Three Days of Rain. Nevertheless, her stage salary pales in comparison to her typical payment of $10-$20 million per movie for much less work. Bigger markets support larger salaries, so the best teachers will earn much more in an online world.

If one can’t leverage the time of the professor, then one solution is to become a “star”, and outsource the actual teaching to lower-paid assistants (as is already the case in some traditional offline courses, to be fair). The “advantage” of doing this online is that a single lecturer can employ an almost unlimited number of low-paid assistants to do the actual teaching, while he “will earn much more”.

[*] I would also note that Tabarrok’s comment about Oxford is somewhat misleading, given that the lecture is not the central part of an Oxford education. The core of an Oxford education is the tutorial, involving direct engagement of the professor with the student in very small groups; it is not even a requirement to attend lectures.

Police problems are social problems

(Originally published 20 November 2011)

Recently a lot of people have been praising and sharing Norm Stamper’s article from the Nation, Paramilitary Policing From Seattle to Occupy Wall Street. Stamper was chief of the Seattle Police Department during the WTO protests of 1999, and has since argued that the police actions at that time were inappropriate.

While what stamper writes in the article is not wrong, I argue that it fails to get to the heart of the problem, and thus fails even to suggest any real solutions.

In his article, Stamper writes:

I, the chief of police, said to myself, “We have to clear the intersection.” Why? Because of all the what-ifs. What if a fire breaks out in the Sheraton across the street? What if a woman goes into labor on the seventeenth floor of the hotel? What if a heart patient goes into cardiac arrest in the high-rise on the corner? What if there’s a stabbing, a shooting, a serious-injury traffic accident? How would an aid car, fire engine or police cruiser get through that sea of people? The cop in me supported the decision to clear the intersection. But the chief in me should have vetoed it. And he certainly should have forbidden the indiscriminate use of tear gas to accomplish it, no matter how many warnings we barked through the bullhorn.

But one might as well ask Stamper the same question: “Why?” And, unfortunately, his answer here, that

My support for a militaristic solution caused all hell to break loose.

… is not really terribly enlightening, largely because it doesn’t address his own stated reasons for acting in the first place.

The response is not wrong, exactly; after all, Stamper is correct that clearing the streets using riot police and tear gas did lead to “the Battle in Seattle”. But even apart from the issue of hindsight, how would knowing that things could go badly have helped make the decision before the fact? Bearing in mind, as well, that all of the factors that led the police to act in the first place still apply, and that failing to act would not guarantee that a riot would not occur?

Giving real thought to this question suggests the real source of the problem, I think, which is that the police are given impossible demands, along with absurdly high stakes for failure.

Stamper writes that

Much of the problem is rooted in a rigid command-and-control hierarchy based on the military model. American police forces are beholden to archaic internal systems of authority whose rules emphasize bureaucratic regulations over conduct on the streets. An officer’s hair length, the shine on his shoes and the condition of his car are more important than whether he treats a burglary victim or a sex worker with dignity and respect. In the interest of “discipline,” too many police bosses treat their frontline officers as dependent children, which helps explain why many of them behave more like juvenile delinquents than mature, competent professionals.

This is probably all true, except for the “rooted in”. That is, the rigid systems almost certainly do cause the quality of policing to suffer, but they don’t come out of thin air. Stamper and other Chiefs of Police didn’t have a meeting one day and decide: “our policing models are too flexible and efficient; let’s make them more rigid and less effective.” These rigid systems arose over time and for a reason.

Consider the situation Stamper describes, and then imagine things working out differently. Suppose that Stamper and his officers decided not to clear the streets, but then there was a fire or some other emergency and people died due to their decision? Or that they decided not to clear the streets and some demonstrators smashed the place up anyway? Imagine the howls of outrage that would follow from the media, the people, and the politicians, demanding the heads of the officers who, by “allowing” such activity, “caused” the death or destruction?

I submit that this attitude is where the problems are “rooted”: the demand by the public that nothing ever go wrong, or that someone is punished for wrongdoing whenever things go wrong. And this is the reason for highly-structured, bureaucratic police organizations, which I suspect almost no one in any police department wants: if there are strict rules for action, and officers follow the rules, then no one can be punished for them after the fact. But if officers use their own judgment and things go wrong, then heads will need to roll. What is needed is a recognition that sometimes, even if someone did everything “right” (or at least, “as well as could be expected of anyone in that situation”), things sometimes go wrong. And this applies to any use of force, as well. If the police at times use force, then sometimes the effects will be bad. And this may be because someone acted badly, but also may be just because events unfolded badly, and with no one doing anything “wrong”. Until the public and its representatives are willing to accept that, and not call for blood unless a police officer is shown to have acted wrongly, police departments and police officers will retreat to strict rule-following, as an officer can’t be punished for following the rules.

Stamper suggests that the solution lies in cooperation with the community.

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

Which sounds reasonable, until one recognizes that there is not a single community, but multiple communities. And each community seems to want the police to come down hard on “the bad guys” while never causing any problem for “the good guys”, and to complicate things still further, those distinctions aren’t the same for every community. More importantly, until the communities are willing to recognize that things can go wrong with no one at fault, there is unlikely to be any real trust. Real life is not like an action movie: a police officer cannot know beforehand that a person is or is not actually armed, or is actually dangerous or merely disoriented. If the “citizen review board” is seen by the police as being made up of those who hate and distrust the police, then it is unlikely to engender any trust. And a review board that might rightly come to the conclusion that the police did as well as they could in a particular situation, given the information available, will be condemned as a “police lapdog” by the community that was injured.

Currently there are howls of protest from certain communities over police actions in clearing various OWS encampments. But what seems to be absent is any realistic alternative.

After the first Occupy Oakland riots, MSNBC interviewed one of the demonstrators.

O’Donnell asked her if the protesters were aware that the police would use tear gas on them if they didn’t disperse. Her answer: “Yes.” He then asked if the protesters did, in fact, throw bottles and rocks at the police anyway even after this warning. Her answer again: “Yes.”

This is from a right-wing blog, but the video is from MSNBC. What is most relevant to this discussion, though, is that the demonstrator admits that the protestors were rioting, but has no answer at all to the (explicit!) question of what the police should have done, her answer is only that they shouldn’t have done what they did.

That is just one person, of course, but the same view seems to be widespread among those who criticize the police actions. The question of “what should be done?” is “not that!” Which is, unfortunately, no answer at all. At least in every case that I am aware of, the “Occupy” protesters were violating the law. The first amendment does not give one the right to take over public space for one’s own use — and there is no “they meant well” exemption to the law. Given that there have been criminal activity, violence, and even in a few cases deaths at various “Occupy” camps, “do nothing” does not seem a realistic answer.

There may be a good argument to be made that, at least in some cases, the police response was disproportionate, but such an argument seems to demand an argument — or at least an explanation — of what would be “proportionate”, and where “nothing” and “not that” are non-answers.

Part of the problem, of course, is that — whatever might be done (and this includes ‘nothing) — things might go badly. If action is taken to clear the camps, then some people might be injured (again, the same holds if no action is taken). Most elected officials, police departments, and even police officers really do not want to injure protesters; at the very least such is likely to lead to extra inquiries and paperwork. There seem to have been at least a few cases of genuine police misconduct over the course of the “Occupy” protests, but the “police bosses” certainly don’t want to deal with the results of such events any more than anyone else.

Currently making the rounds are reports and images of students being pepper-sprayed at UD Davis, accompanied by outrage and calls for resignations. Yet, given that the UC Davis students’ camp was to be removed, was the action even the wrong one?

Charles J. Kelly, a former Baltimore Police Department lieutenant who wrote the department’s use of force guidelines, said pepper spray is a “compliance tool” that can be used on subjects who do not resist, and is preferable to simply lifting protesters. 
“When you start picking up human bodies, you risk hurting them,” Kelly said. “Bodies don’t have handles on them.” 
from Officers in pepper spray incident put on leave (CBS News)

I submit that Kelly seems to have a point, here. It may sound callous, and it may look unpleasant when people are being sprayed, but it seems to be at least arguable that such is the best way to accomplish the goal of clearing the camp.

Some would argue, obviously, that clearing the camp (or clearing any of the “Occupy” camps) was not actually necessary. There are certainly arguments on both sides of this issue, and reasonable people can disagree. But what is troubling is that those who argue against clearing the camps seem to have no gauge for when (if ever) such camps should be removed, anc certainly at somepoint it would become appropriate to do so. And more troubling still is that those who argue against action seem to do so based upon one of two principles, neither of which holds up well.

One view seems to be nothing more than the position: I agree with them, therefore they should be left alone, even if they are violating the law. Unfortunately, though perhaps emotionally appealing, this is no principle that can hold in a society based on law. If “the people” want “occupying” a public space to be lawful, then there are ways to enact laws regarding this, but in no way is “it is ok for you to violate the law so long as I like you” a viable public policy (unless perhaps the “I” is an absolute monarch).

The other view, and what seems to inform some of the outrage at the police, is that action shouldn’t be taken that might hurt someone. Unfortunately, this fails as a principle, also, not only because not acting may also lead to injury, but more importantly because it devolves into oppression by a minority who are most strongly committed. Being willing to risk injury, as certain protesters (in various different, and different types of “movements”) is certainly a sign of strong commitment, but is in no way any demonstration that what one is committed to is correct. After all, if such were the case, then Americans would have converted en masse to Islam in September, 2001. Plainly, “we can’t stop you from doing something if so stopping might cause harm” is similarly non-viable as a public policy, as such effectively turns one’s society over to the most reckless.

Interestingly, the same point has already been made regarding internal decision-making at Occupy Wall Street, by Sara Robinson at Nicole Sandler’s Radio or not.

Certainly it is reasonable to say that force should be used only as a last resort, but even such a statement presumes that force isappropriate when necessary, and that there are times when it may be necessary.

All of which at least strongly suggests that, at least at some point, it is or would be correct to clear “Occupy” camps. And this will mean the use of force against at least some demonstrators, as at least some have made it clear that they will not depart willingly. And here we return to the basic matter of the use of force. No doubt everyone would wish that police officers charged with using force in such a case would use the minimal amount of force necessary, and in a way that is least likely to cause unnecessary harm. The problem is that there is nothing at all (again, including doing nothing) that can guarantee the absence of harm, yet such a guarantee seems to be just what the public demands, if it is not to turn on those using force. And thus hierarchical and bureaucratic procedures will continue.

To use an extreme example, consider the case of the UC Davis officer who is currently being vilified across the media spectrum for using pepper spray against student demonstrators. Leaving aside the question of whether it was necessary to remove the protesters (which is a judgment call that was made by the University, not the police officers), imagine what would be the case if one of the officers chose not to follow official procedures, but instead use his own judgment, with the result that one of the students involved was seriously injured (perhaps a broken wrist or arm). I submit that the howls of outrage in the media would be as loud or louder than they are, and that the officer would face potential sanctions, possibly including criminal charges for “brutality”, all for failing to follow bureaucratically proper procedures. I, at least, find it difficult to condemn someone making that choice in that way.

All of which serves only to return to the central point: Yes, policing has become overly hierarchical and bureaucratic, particularly when dealing with situations of conflict and/or the use of force. But this hasn’t happened (at least not primarily) because police departments or police officers enjoy bureaucracy and procedural or hierarchical straitjackets. Rather, strict adherence to policy and procedure serves as protection when things go wrong (which they will, at least at some point, even with the best efforts of those involved), while going outside of procedures pretty much ensures punishment when things go wrong (which they will, at some point, even with the best efforts of those involved). Until society as a whole is willing to trust the judgment of police officers (at least to the extent of recognizing that bad things can happen without an officer acting badly), there is little reason for police departments and police officers to do so.

Note: as suggested above, none of this argument is intended to excuse actual police misconduct, which plainly does occur, nor even police misjudgment — where ‘misjudgment’ consists of not attending to the relevant aspects of the situation or not weighing the various factors before acting.

What’s wrong with Occupy Wall Street

(Originally published 28 October 2011)

A number of different people have asked me about my negative views on “Occupy Wall Street”, so it seemed a good thing to try to set them down in some more or less coherent form.

To start with, I should point out that I agree that there are some serious problems facing the USA and the world, and further that I don’t object to the goals of those involved in OWS — at least to the extent that I know what those goals are. I agree that the concentration of wealth, particularly in the USA over the last 30 years, is a serious problem; I agree that money has too much influence in American elections; I agree that there should be more and better regulation of banks and financial markets. Further, I agree that health care and productive work should be available to all, and strongly support very strongly redistributive tax policies. Indeed, I suspect that my own views are in many ways more radical than many of those involved in OWS.

All that said, I am also a “systems” guy, and that means, among other things, that I am constantly attending to questions like: “What are you really trying to accomplish?” and “How does doing X really serve to achieve your goal Y?”

And my basic problem with OWS is that I don’t see how anything OWS has done serves to solve any of the problems that exist. Worse still, OWS seems to be channeling energy that could be productive into an entirely non-productive direction.

. . .

I know that there are many who disagree with me on this, and it is common to compare the OWS demonstrations to the “Arab spring” demonstrations of earlier this year, but I submit that this comparison is mistaken, and that the cases are different in all the important relevant aspects.

To understand why I say this, it is necessary to consider what “protest” (demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, occupations, or any other form) achieves, or can achieve, politically, and recognize that protest is a very poor political tool, or at best a very limited one. Protest is a blunt instrument, its message largely limited to “we want X!” or “we don’t wan’t Y!” In some cases, protest may be the only tool in a population’s kit, such as was the case in North Africa earlier this year, or in the DDR or apartheid-era South Africa, as suggested by Mary Elizabeth King in her article at Alternet. But that simply isn’t so in the USA at the present time: the US government is not authoritarian, and free elections are held regularly. Regardless of what anyone might think of the quality of the “major party” candidates or the influence of money on elections, “the people” are free to vote for the representatives who represent their own positions, to promote those candidates, or even themselves to run for office, or form their own political party, should they so desire. To be sure, none of these guarantees that anyone’s position will actually carry the day, but all have the opportunities to make their case and attempt to convince the majority of its validity.

In an authoritarian state, such is not the case, and the simple message of protest, such as “Mubarak out!” may be the only political tool there is. Such was also the case for the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s: denied the vote, black citizens marched, demanding their right to express their will via the ballot. But that just isn’t so for the OWS protesters.

That said, there may be a point to “protest” even in a democracy. But it is a limited point. I submit that in a liberal democracy, protest is useful either a) to call attention to something that is not yet recognized; or b) to galvanize the protesting group for political action. Note, though, that these are not directly political actions, but a sort of “pre-political” activity: if there is a problem that is not yet recognized, calling attention to it must be followed by some possible political solution; if one is galvanizing one’s own “base”, then that must be for some form of following political action.

OWS, unfortunately, satisfies neither of these criteria. Those involved do point out problems, but these problems are hardly unknown; they are not in need of additional attention. Certainly solutions are needed, but the existence of problems is not secret. And those involved in OWS seem either unable to cohere upon even any goal for political action (let alone any action), or even actively to reject any specific further political action. Which means that OWS fails as any sort of pre-political activity.

There are some who suggest that it is too soon for such things, that OWS is a broad-based movement, like other historical movements. The problem with this line of argument is that the “movements” people reference — such as abolition, civil rights, etc. — were movements built around a goal. A “movement” pulled in all directions at once doesn’t end up going anywhere.

I noted above that OWS may actually have negative results, which may seem a bit extreme. But if one considers how change actually occurs in a “democratic” society, then it may not seem so strange.

In a “democratic” society, the people effect change in policy via the political process. Various parties or persons propose their plans and policies, and “the people” vote their wishes. At least in theory, if not always so clearly in practice. Nonetheless, it remains so that, unless one rejects the political process entirely (preferring instead the overthrow of the existing political order, for example), then changes in policy come via the political process. Any real change, in taxation, in banking or other corporate regulation, in the provision of health care or education, or anything else, will occur based on new legislation, which in turn will occur based on who is elected to office. The reinstatement of Glass-Steagall in some form, for example, will not come about under the existing Congress, nor under a future Congress of like makeup. Which is only to say that such reinstatement will come about — if it does so at all! — not through protest or occupation, but through electing different legislators.

This means that, unless one advocates actual revolution (which some involved in OWS may do[1]), any action on real change, in the direction advocated by what seems to be most of those involved in OWS, must mean changing the makeup of the legislature.

Unfortunately for those desiring such an outcome, while the “right” (or “the 1%”, if one prefers) is actively preparing its strategy for moving the legislature further in their preferred direction[2], the “left” (at least as embodied by OWS) is busy drumming while the country burns.

What is particularly depressing about this is that “the 99%” really can change the direction of the country, by electing different legislators. It is true that money has a large (and growing!) influence on elections, but that is, at least to a great extent, because “the people” are no longer organized to affect who is elected, and the result then depends on who has the most or best television commercials.

Consider the fact that US House districts are sufficiently small that a group of 1000 people could quite literally go out and talk to every voter in a given district. Then consider what would be the effect on policies favored by progressives (or ‘the left’ or — one supposes — ‘OWS’) if just 25 members of the House switched from TEA Party conservative to progressive.

But instead, OWS says:

We want to see a general assembly in every backyard, on every street corner because we don’t need Wall Street and we don’t need politicians to build a better society.
from OccupyWallSt.org on 1 November 2011.

… which supposedly someone thinks will accomplish something, somehow, sometime.


[1] “the only solution is WorldRevolution” appears on the main page of the OccupyWallSt.org web site, at least as of November 1, 2011.

[2]See the NYT article Outside Groups Eclipsing G.O.P. as Hub of Campaigns of October 29, 2011.

All terrorists are NOT the same

(Originally published 24 July 2011)

There has been a considerable amount of discussion on the net recently about the attacks in Noway and the rush to judge them as the work of “(Islamic) terrorists”, much of it thoughtful, if perhaps not particularly “new”. I suggest that it is not “new” because it has been obvious at least since the 1980s that “one man’s ‘terrorist’ is another man’s ‘freedom fighter'” (though I don’t recall where I first read that). What is new is the way that ‘terrorist’ has become linked to ‘Islam’ in the Anglo-American media in this century, as Glenn Greenwald illustrates in his The omnipotence of Al Qaeda and meaninglessness of “Terrorism”.

That said, in a generally well-considered article, Greenwald, like some others goes too far in seeming to equate Breivik’s attacks in Norway with the attacks of organizations. This goes too far because there really is a difference between an individual and an organization.

In his otherwise well-considered article, Greenwald asks:

Will tall, blond, Nordic-looking males now receive extra scrutiny at airports and other locales, and will those having any involvement with those right-wing, Muslim-hating groups be secretly placed on no-fly lists? Or are those oppressive, extremist, lawless measures — like the word Terrorism — also reserved exclusively for Muslims?

I’ve also seen similar sentiments expressed elsewhere.

I submit that, regardless of the legitimacy of “no-fly lists” and the like, this sort of thinking is mistaken, for it fails to make the very real distinction between an individual and an organization.

This is not a difference in “terrorism”; I note, for example, that the BBC reports that “Mr Breivik has been charged with committing acts of terrorism”.

This is also not a difference between left and right, or domestic an international. In both Europe and the USA, the state has taken action against various violent/terrorist organizations, including the Red Brigades, Neo-Nazi organizations, the Weather Underground, and KKK and “militia” groups.

But there is a truly fundamental difference in that organizations, by their nature, can be monitored. Large operations can possibly be disrupted. Individuals acting as individuals cannot, at least not without the institution of the most extreme sort of police state (if even then). At least so far, it appears that Breivik was not actually a member on any violent or even extremist organization, and that he only posted on various web fora. Should the authorities take action against individuals on the basis of their comments on the web expressing or sympathizing with unpopular positions?

But if such actions are not to be taken, then there is very little that can be done to prevent the actions (even violent or terrorist actions) of individuals. But this hardly means that terrorist organizations must be left alone. It does not seem to me out of line that an organization that has endorsed, planned, or even carried out violent attacks (whether they be referred to as ‘terrorism’ or not) should be monitored.

I would also note that such a position is not limited to ‘terrorism’. In normal police activities, the activities of criminal organizations and their members are dealt with in a very different way than are those of individual criminals or possible criminals.

Thus, one can justifiably condemn both the leap to judgment regarding the attacks in Norway and the apparent double standard regarding ‘terrorism’, but one should be careful to avoid erasing critical differences when doing so.

God and Existence

(Originally published 11 July 2011)

This is a response to Don Berg’s Do you believe in time and mind?.

I fear that this will not be a fully cohesive response, as I want to present something in reasonable time, and I think I see some really fundamental confusion in your text.

To start toward the end.

Your knowledge may be superior for certain purposes you subscribe to, but, if the people you claim are ignorant don’t share your purposes then your problem is not properly with their a lack of knowledge, its with the purposes they subscribe to such that they know things to be a different way.

Let me note that “properly” seems to be carrying a great deal of weight here, and I think it will need considerably more foundation if it is to support that weight. I would also submit that it is quite simply wrong, in that it seems to confuse ‘ignorance’ with ‘irrelevance’. I have next to no interest in early Christian theology, and thus have no idea what were Augustine’s views on transubstantiation. So far as I know, such has nothing to do with any of my purposes, and so it is irrelevant to me. But that does not change the fact that I am also ignorant. I do happen to know that Augustine was born in North Africa, something that is also irrelevant to me, but which I happened to acquire as a bit of trivia. Moving in the other direction, it is possible that even now a heretofore unknown asteroid has crashed into North Africa and within the next hour my home will be devastated. This would be something about which I am ignorant, though (as it would happen, if it were true) it is very important to my purposes.

When you write

I do not subscribe to the view of children as ignorant in the sense of lacking essential information. I do subscribe to the view that they are independent human beings with their own purposes and have access to a lot less information than older people.

I am just confused, because lacking information is precisely what ‘ignorance’ is. Of course one could argue whether some particular piece of information was or was not “essential” (however one might wish to define that), and perhaps thus whether some particular instance of ignorance was important in some case (or for some purpose), but that is a different issue, and the two should not be equated. I don’t see how there can be any serious question as to whether “knowledge is superior to the knowledge of those who are ignorant”. Yes, in some cases the knowledge may be trivial or irrelevant, but certainly it is “superior”, at least as knowledge, even if such might to utterly irrelevant to some purpose.

I add here that the question of knowledge and ignorance is not just some power game that I’m engaging in, here. After all, your argument was founded on ‘god’ as a placeholder for ignorance.

There also seems to be confusion regarding the real. First, you say, “Faeries are real to her”, but then you qualify that by saying “for the time being faeries are ‘real‘“, using what appear to be “scare” quotes, suggesting that you don’t actually mean to equate the two. But then the question immediately arises of what we are to make of your “real”. And this cannot be (I don’t think) merely a question of whether you “share her beliefs”, for even if you want to endorse some sort of Realism (regarding universals or concepts) you don’t want (I don’t think) to make “real” equivalent to “believed”, for then you have so denatured your concept of “real” as to allow to encompass “imaginary” and thus rendered it useless. But if that is not what you intend, then the whole matter of the little girl and faeries seems irrelevant.

Turning to the Lakoff and Johnson quote, I don’t see anything in it to object to, but there is one caveat. Yes, “there can still be many correct descriptions”, but also many incorrect descriptions. Indeed, the very concept of a “correct” description entails the possibility of incorrect ones. And this is because there are things that are true and false about the world. We can “get near universal agreement” about the existence of chairs and tables, and the nonexistence of unicorns and faeries, not merely because we “share the same conceptual structures”, but because there are referents in the world for the concepts of chairs and tables, but not unicorns and faeries. Indeed, even the idea that “we share the same biological structures” depends upon the actual existence of things like biological structures in the world.

I will add that there is a potential ambiguity in the text from Lakoff and Johnson. “What we mean by ‘real’ is what we need to posit conceptually…” can be read in at least two ways. One way is to focus on the “need”, and therefore define the ‘real’ as that which is necessary for human experience (something along the lines of Kant, perhaps), while the other is to ignore the “need” and read it merely as whatever happens to be posited. While the former might well be a reasonable candidate for the ‘real’, it must be noted that it sets an extremely high bar for concepts to be considered “real”. The bar for the latter is much lower, but is almost certainly too low, for it allows the demonstrably false and the imaginary to become “real”.

Finally, turning to your new argument (or sketch), it seems to me that there is a problem at the fourth and fifth step. ‘Mind’ and ‘time’ can (at least arguably) be justified as “real” in the strong sense (as ‘necessary’) in the L&J framework. But ‘god’ cannot, unless you have an argument that only minds make things happen. If not, and if there are other things that make things happen in the world, then, while it is possible that there is some “mind-like entity with causal agency in the world”, it is also possible that there is not such an entity. I further submit that such a challenge cannot be met, given that many instances of apparent agency in the world turn out to be the result of (sometimes quite simple) algorithms.

Thus, I conclude that one can present ‘god’ as “real” only by conceiving ‘real’ so broadly as to encompass the imaginary, the false, and the nonexistent. You can conclude that ‘god’ is just as “real” as faeries at the bottom the garden or Santa Claus, but (Francis Church notwithstanding) I don’t think that gets you very far.


Response from Don Berg, 8 August 2011.

Finally, got my reply together.

Religion and the Liberal State

(Originally published 21 November 2010)

Stanley Fish recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on “Religion and the Liberal State – Once Again“.While he may make some interesting points, there seems to me to be a serious problem in his understanding of what a liberal state requires, and therefore also its relation to religious belief.

Fish begins reasonably enough.

Liberalism is the name of an enlightenment theory of government characterized by an emphasis on procedural rather than substantive rights: the law protects individual free choice and is not skewed in the direction of some choices or biased against others; the laws framed by the liberal state are, or should be, neutral between competing visions of the good and the good life; the state intervenes aggressively only when the adherents of one vision claim the right to act in ways that impinge upon the rights of others to make their own choices.

Unfortunately, he quickly takes a wrong turn.

The key distinction underlying classical liberalism is the distinction between the private and the public. This distinction allows the sphere of political deliberation to be insulated from the intractable oppositions that immediately surface when religious viewpoints are put on the table. Liberalism tells us that religious viewpoints should be confined to the home, the heart, the place of worship and the personal relationship between oneself and one’s God. 

When the liberal citizen exits the private realm and enters the public square, he or she is supposed to leave religious commitments behind and function as a stripped-down entity, as an abstract-not-full personage, who makes political decisions not as a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim but as what political scientist Michael Sandel calls an “unencumbered self,” a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities.

Regardless of what Michael Sandel might think (or how Fish might choose to interpret Sandel), this final sentence is absurd on its face, which ought to be a warning that something has gone seriously wrong with the argument. The “unencumbered self” is term of art used by John Rawls in a thought experiment to evaluate what kind of society one might choose. It is evident by inspection, I submit that no actual liberal citizen might be supposed to enter the public square as such a “stripped-down entity”; every actual person is has beliefs, commitments, etc. I submit therefore that no sane person (“liberal” or not) would actually assert what Fish writes above.

Instead, the liberal state recognizes that different citizens have different beliefs and commitments, and — as Fish himself notes a few paragraphs earlier — “competing visions of the good and the good life”, and therefore that no liberal citizen (or group thereof) may impose its views on the others. This, it should be noted, is more or less precisely the opposite of the suggestion that the (actual) liberal citizen is “a self unencumbered by ethnic, racial, gender, class or religious identities.”

It is only this mistaken understanding of liberalism that enables Fish to claim that

…liberalism’s inability to regard strong religious claims — claims that spill out into public life — as anything but a mistake and a transgression is not something liberalism can correct or get beyond…

Which claim is not true. The liberal state certainly can regard strong religious claims, and does so in exactly the same way that it regards any strong belief claims. That is, the liberal state can recognize that the Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu, or any other “religious” believer has strong beliefs, but without granting those beliefs any special privilege or authority over any other strong beliefs. Nor is this restricted to religion; and Objectivist or an animal rights activist may have beliefs that are equally strong and deeply held (if not more so) than religious believers.

Thus, far from demanding that believers discard their beliefs, the liberal state accepts that citizens enter the public sphere with their beliefs intact. Indeed, they are free to bring their beliefs with them, and to advocate for those beliefs. Such advocacy can be seen in every actually-existing liberal state. What religious believers may not do is claim privileged civil status for their beliefs, any more than any other citizen may do for his or her beliefs. But this is very far from the claim that the liberal state requires non-belief.