Category Archives: Human rights

Sunday Spam: toast and vegemite

This week, I feel the need to emphasise that linking does not imply uncritical endorsement!

Philip Roth and Wikipedia

There’s only one problem with this: Roth’s open letter is at best the (justifiably) aggrieved and confused ramblings of a man ignorantly discussing what he does not understand or remember, and at worst a deliberately malicious act inspired by nothing more than a misguided desire to flip us the Vs and maybe get paid by the New Yorker on the way.

In Response to Amanda Palmer

Is it noble to volunteer for a cash-rich for-profit enterprise? And what about when taking the gig means that you’re taking food from the mouths of people whose day job it is to play these kinds of high-pressure, high-profile concerts and ensure that the audience won’t be let down?

Is it noble to devalue the role of musicians by suggesting that their years of training and their tens of thousands of hours of practice is worth little more than a beer and a high-five?

Headspace withdraws support for RU OK? Day

In a statement released this afternoon, the organisation said it was uncomfortable about the support RU OK? Day was receiving from Gloria Jean’s because of the coffee chain’s $30,000 donation to the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL).

Girls gone Wilder

Rose Wilder Lane’s life story is arguably way more interesting than that of her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Owen Jones: William Hague is wrong… we must own up to our brutal colonial past

As India became increasingly crucial to British prosperity, millions of Indians died completely unnecessary deaths. Over a decade ago, Mike Davis wrote a seminal book entitled Late Victorian Holocausts: the title is far from hyperbole. As a result of laissez-faire economic policies ruthlessly enforced by Britain, between 12 and 29 million Indians died of starvation needlessly. Millions of tons of wheat were exported to Britain even as famine raged. When relief camps were set up, the inhabitants were barely fed and nearly all died.

Philosophy gender war erupts after call for larger role for women

It began with a private email last month from one established male philosopher to four others: Proceed with a Berlin-based conference that features 14 male speakers and no women, the writer said, and I will essentially launch a campaign to take you down professionally.

How Google Builds Its Maps—and What It Means for the Future of Everything

Or as my friend and sci-fi novelist Robin Sloan put it to me, “I maintain that this is Google’s core asset. In 50 years, Google will be the self-driving car company (powered by this deep map of the world) and, oh, P.S. they still have a search engine somewhere.”

Legal myths about the Assange extradition

Whenever the Julian Assange extradition comes up in the news, many of his supporters make various confident assertions about legal aspects of the case.

Some Assange supporters will maintain these contentions regardless of the law and the evidence – they are like “zombie facts” which stagger on even when shot down; but for anyone genuinely interested in getting at the truth, this quick post sets out five common misconceptions and some links to the relevant commentary and material.

The Joke’s on You

[Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert, in particular, have assumed the role of secular saints whose nightly shtick restores sanity to a world gone mad.

But their sanctification is not evidence of a world gone mad so much as an audience gone to lard morally, ignorant of the comic impulse’s more radical virtues. Over the past decade, political humor has proliferated not as a daring form of social commentary, but a reliable profit source. Our high-tech jesters serve as smirking adjuncts to the dysfunctional institutions of modern media and politics, from which all their routines derive. Their net effect is almost entirely therapeutic: they congratulate viewers for their fine habits of thought and feeling while remaining careful never to question the corrupt precepts of the status quo too vigorously.

Pawns in the War on Drugs

Informants are the foot soldiers in the government’s war on drugs. By some estimates, up to eighty per cent of all drug cases in America involve them, often in active roles like Hoffman’s. For police departments facing budget woes, untrained C.I.s provide an inexpensive way to outsource the work of undercover officers. “The system makes it cheap and easy to use informants, as opposed to other, less risky but more cumbersome approaches,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a leading expert on informants. “There are fewer procedures in place and fewer institutional checks on their use.” Often, deploying informants involves no paperwork and no institutional oversight, let alone lawyers, judges, or public scrutiny; their use is necessarily shrouded in secrecy.

Sunday Spam: bagels, lox and smoked salmon

In belated honour of my breakfast in New York, Sunday July 8.

Baby Loss and the Pain Olympics

Warning for baby loss discussion.

I really have to question why seeing someone else processing their emotions is her pet peeve.

Do I believe a miscarriage and neonatal death is the same thing — of course not. If they were the same thing, they would share the same term. But just because I see them as apples and oranges doesn’t mean that I don’t also see them as fruit. They are both loss.

The deadly scandal in the building trade

Readers would not guess from the “national conversation” that the construction industry is sitting on a story as grave in its implications as the phone-hacking affair – graver I will argue. You are unlikely to have heard mention of it for a simple and disreputable reason: the victims are working-class men rather than celebrities… The construction companies could not be clearer that men who try to enforce minimum safety standards are their enemies. The files included formal letters notifying a company that a worker was the official safety rep on a site as evidence against him.

On Technical Entitlement

By most measures, I should have technical entitlement in spades… [and yet] I am very intimidated by the technically entitled.

You know the type. The one who was soldering when she was 6. The one who raises his hand to answer every question–and occasionally try to correct the professor. The one who scoffs at anyone who had a score below the median on that data structures exam (“idiots!”). The one who introduces himself by sharing his StackOverflow score.

Puzzling outcomes in A/B testing

A fun upcoming KDD 2012 paper out of Microsoft, “Trustworthy Online Controlled Experiments: Five Puzzling Outcomes Explained” (PDF), has a lot of great insights into A/B testing and real issues you hit with A/B testing. It’s a light and easy read, definitely worthwhile.

Selected excerpts:

We present … puzzling outcomes of controlled experiments that we analyzed deeply to understand and explain … [requiring] months to properly analyze and get to the often surprising root cause … It [was] not uncommon to see experiments that impact annual revenue by millions of dollars … Reversing a single incorrect decision based on the results of an experiment can fund a whole team of analysts.

When Bing had a bug in an experiment, which resulted in very poor results being shown to users, two key organizational metrics improved significantly: distinct queries per user went up over 10%, and revenue per user went up over 30%! …. Degrading algorithmic results shown on a search engine result page gives users an obviously worse search experience but causes users to click more on ads, whose relative relevance increases, which increases short-term revenue … [This shows] it’s critical to understand that long-term goals do not always align with short-term metrics.

Angels & Demons

One of the various Longform collections, and like many of them, a crime piece:

On June 4, 1989, the bodies of Jo, Michelle and Christe were found floating in Tampa Bay. This is the story of the murders, their aftermath, and the handful of people who kept faith amid the unthinkable.

On Leaving Academia

As almost everybody knows at this point, I have resigned my position at the University of New Mexico. Effective this July, I am working for Google, in their Cambridge (MA) offices.

Countless people, from my friends to my (former) dean have asked “Why? Why give up an excellent [some say 'cushy'] tenured faculty position for the grind of corporate life?”

Honestly, the reasons are myriad and complex, and some of them are purely personal. But I wanted to lay out some of them that speak to larger trends at UNM, in New Mexico, in academia, and in the US in general. I haven’t made this move lightly, and I think it’s an important cautionary note to make: the factors that have made academia less appealing to me recently will also impact other professors.

Ethics, Culture, & Policy: Commercial surrogacy in India: A $2 billion industry

Since its legalization in 2002, commercial surrogacy in India has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry, drawing couples from around the world. IVF procedures in the unregulated Indian clinics generally cost a fraction of what they would in Europe or the U.S., with surrogacy as little as one-tenth the price. Mainstream press reports in English-language publications occasionally devote a line or two to the ethical implications of using poor women as surrogates, but with few exceptions, these women’s voices have not been heard.

Sociologist Amrita Pande of the University of Cape Town set out to speak directly with the “workers” to see how they are affected by such “work.”

Sunday Spam: crepes and maple syrup

As just fed to my son, in fact.

The execution of Troy Davis and the death penalty

I donated to the Innocence Project and the (US) National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, for what it’s worth.

Fukushima Disaster: It’s Not Over Yet

The impact of both radiation and fear of radiation on Japanese society, although it feels a little shallow. I’d love to read this argument from the perspective of a Japanese person.

Debunking the Cul-de-Sac

Struggles to come up with anything nice to say about cul-de-sacs, frankly, unless you are in the business of selling either cars or fuel for them. Oh, they’re quieter. Other than that, cul-de-sacs suck.

Queen of the Kitchen

A Christmas-time fairy story by Karen Healey. So you know it’s got a tough-minded teen girl, New Zealand, and magic. Several of my favourite things.

Chemotherapy doesn’t work? Not so fast…

Science Based Medicine reviews the real position of chemotherapy. It works as the primary treatment for a fairly small number of cancers, it doesn’t work much at all for some cancers, and much of the time it is part of several treatments (radiotherapy, surgery).

On Feminism and Virtue

Sady Doyle reflects on the extent to which being a feminist makes you a better person: potentially not much.

The Great American Bubble Machine

Goldman Sachs: always there to turn a functioning market into a speculative bubble, and thence to profit. Highlights include 100 million people entering hunger in 2007 due to speculation on food and oil futures. This was via Tim O’Reilly, who went down to the Occupy Wall Street protests because even rich small-government types do (or ought to) have a beef against Wall Street.

Disability Culture meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons from my cat

On the normalisation of euthanasia in animals, to the point where vets can’t advise on what death of natural causes is like, and its relationship to euthanisa in humans. I was thinking about this issue over the last few years, most recently after a vet euthenised my parents’ elderly pet horse after what my father, who works in the meat industry and has seen hundreds if not thousands of animals die—and some seriously negligent treatment of animals for that matter—described as the worst suffering he’d ever seen. So, I don’t have a lot to say about Tony’s death, but it did make me think about how animals die.

Certificates and “authorities”

The certificates that identify websites for secure web browsing, that is. Basically, it’s a mess. There are about 400 organisations that are trusted by browsers to sign the identities of secure websites, they get hacked quite a bit, and some of them are careless at best about security.

Movin’ Meat: Instinct vs Expertise

An ER doctor puzzles over why a neurosurgeon isn’t taking a certain fracture seriously. Unlike a lot of stuff I link here, this is less about systemic concerns and more just an interesting story.

The iPad, the Kindle, and the future of books

From early last year, more in my attempt to understand publisher perspectives on ebooks. I’m in an interesting place on this, reading both in the open source/copyright reform world which tends to accept and embrace the tendency of the sale value of intellectual property to fall to zero or nearly so once distribution is cheap (see for example Copyfight on ebook prices rising), and librarians, publishers and authors who aren’t so hot on that happening to books.

Anyway, now I know what the agency model is.

Do We Need A New Nirvana? Does Modern Music Suck?

Joel Connolly (my brother-in-law, and a band manager) thinks audiences need to wise up to existing awesome music, basically. It’s a longer version of what he said to Bernard Zuel early in the month.

Above reproach: why do we never question fidelity?

I like this style of inquiry. Basically, the question is that everyone agrees that infidelity (not having multiple partners, but having multiple partners without being honest about it) is unethical. But should we? Is this sometimes part of oppression?

Every so often, asking these questions of human relationships is important. (Note that the writer, also, doesn’t have an answer.)

Increasing Barriers to College Attendance Through ‘Optional’ Extracurriculars

Something I’ve wondered about for ages, as Australian universities, which largely admit students based on pure academic performance, are constantly criticised for not moving to the US model, which takes into account the whole person, yadda yadda. As long as the whole person has time in their life for charity work, sports teams, student politics etc. To me, US college applications often sound like high schoolers applying for a Rhodes scholarship straight out of school. Not that raw exam scores don’t incorporate endless privilege, but extracurriculars do not in any way ameliorate that.

Sunday Spam: hot banana bread

These are, largely, in reverse order of reading, that is, most recent first. Interesting that that tends to be a thematic ordering too.

Right-wing memes ahoy – “pregnancy is not a disease”

Right wing argument: pregnancy isn’t a disease. Therefore contraception shouldn’t be among funded medical services.
Response: pregnancy is [affiliated with/causes] illness for some women. Therefore contraception should be among funded medical services!

Uh, don’t buy the framing, responders! Says Tiger Beatdown. The end.

7-Year Old Transgender Child Refused Proper Bathroom Visits in School

Child identifies as boy. Parents, doctors and peers recognising child’s gender identity. School superintendent knows better. Unhilarity ensues.

This is what I said a feminist mother looks like:

  • Part One: the questionnaire, demographics, key themes and becoming feminists
  • Part Two: the impact of motherhood on their feminism
  • Part Three: being surprised by motherhood
  • Part Four: defining their feminist parenting
  • Part Five: the difficulties with being a feminist parent
  • This is a summary of a conference presentation Blue Milk gave on her long running 10 questions about your feminist motherhood series. I know that I keep going on about Instapaper, but these were handily divided up into bite-sized blog entries and I was still too lazy to read them before.

    Pink Scare

    A roundup of a series of incidents in which a huge comment storm has been created around a boy dressing as a girl or in girl-marked clothes. Not really novel if you read about this stuff a lot, a good summary either way, particularly the historical context about when and where young children have been expected to be strongly gender-marked.

    What revolution? Why haven’t women pushed harder for caring work to be valued?

    Blue Milk again, on the not-always-perfect marriage of patriarchy and capitalism, summarising Nancy Folbre. Of particular note Higher paid women benefit from their ability to hire low-wage women to provide child care and elder care in the market.

    Film review: “The Help,” a feel-good movie for white people

    The Help has become such a by-word for race fail in my circles that I hadn’t even heard what the basic plot was. Consider this a useful primer: what the plot is, what the problems are. Now you don’t have to see the movie.

    Gaddafi Should Be Tried At The Hague

    Not a surprising opinion for Geoffrey Robertson, but perhaps not everyone has read Crimes Against Humanity. Actually I haven’t read it all the way through either, because I have it in the cheap Penguin edition with teeny tiny writing and a stiff spine, and it’s still too heavy to hold in one hand. Must look into Kindling.

    Anyway, back in to Gaddafi: British Prime Minister David Cameron made a serious mistake this week by insisting that the fate of the Gaddafis should be a matter for the Libyan people. That was the line George Bush took after the capture of Saddam Hussein, as a rhetorical cover so that the death penalty could be imposed on the Iraqi despot by politically manipulated local judges.

    Australians don’t fully understand what is being done in their name

    While we’re in the thematic section marked unsurprising opinions from lawyers active in human rights, Julian Burnside. Why do we do this? What is it about our national character that explains such cruel, illogical behaviour? Simple: the politicians do it for political gain, and most Australians do not fully understand what is being done in their name.

    I’m worried he’s wrong.

    Why Political Coverage is Broken

    Jay Rosen’s keynote address at New News 2011, focussing on the marketing of news to politically interested readers. We’re all insiders, considering how this will play to the voters, as if they aren’t us.

    How the World Failed Haiti

    Well, partly it’s a Wicked Problem (high stakes, one chance to solve it, no good model, no correct solution, no or little ability to fix things after the fact, etc), but one focus of this particular article is that while Bill Clinton himself is potentially a good advocate and ally for Haiti, the people the Clintons tend to hire aren’t so much, perhaps. They tend to be experienced political operatives, not experienced disaster relief workers. (Also, even people specialising in development aren’t the same people who are good at disaster relief.)

    Learning to love my baby

    Jessica Valenti’s daughter was born extremely premature after a traumatic emergency Caesearean following pre-eclampsia and HELLP. She doesn’t think it’s a problem that her feelings towards her daughter were complex and that loving her was scary. She condemns though, factors that made her feel that this made her a terrible person.

    Review: The Red Market by Scott Carney

    The Red Market is the market in bodies, body parts and blood. This is a book review, not the book itself (The Red Market: On the Trail of the World’s Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers), which goes on the to-read list.