Quotulatiousness

December 19, 2014

Mark Steyn on the collapse of moral fibre at Sony

Filed under: Asia, Business, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

Mark Steyn is never one to hold back an opinion:

I was barely aware of The Interview until, while sitting through a trailer for what seemed like just another idiotic leaden comedy, my youngest informed me that the North Koreans had denounced the film as “an act of war”. If it is, they seem to have won it fairly decisively: Kim Jong-Un has just vaporized a Hollywood blockbuster as totally as if one of his No Dong missiles had taken out the studio. As it is, the fellows with no dong turned out to be the executives of Sony Pictures.

I wouldn’t mind but this is the same industry that congratulates itself endlessly — not least in its annual six-hour awards ceremony — on its artists’ courage and bravery. Called on to show some for the first time in their lives, they folded like a cheap suit. As opposed to the bank-breaking suit their lawyers advised them they’d be looking at if they released the film and someone put anthrax in the popcorn. I think of all the occasions in recent years when I’ve found myself sharing a stage with obscure Europeans who’ve fallen afoul of Islam — Swedish artists, Danish cartoonists, Norwegian comediennes, all of whom showed more courage than these Beverly Hills bigshots.

While I often find Mark Steyn’s comments amusing and insightful, the real lesson here may not be the spineless response of Sony, but the impact of a legal system on the otherwise free actions of individuals and organizations: if Sony had gone ahead with the release and someone did attack one or more of the theatres where the movie was being shown, how would the legal system treat the situation? As an act of war by an external enemy or as an act of gross negligence by Sony and the theatre owners that would bankrupt every single company in the distribution chain (and probably lead to criminal charges against individual theatre managers and corporate officers)? While I disagree with Sony’s decision to fold under the pressure, I can’t imagine any corporate board being comfortable with that kind of stark legal threat … Sony’s executives may have been presented with no choice at all.

I see that, following the disappearance of The Interview, a Texan movie theater replaced it with a screening of Team America. That film wouldn’t get made today, either.

Hollywood has spent the 21st century retreating from storytelling into a glossy, expensive CGI playground in which nothing real is at stake. That’s all we’ll be getting from now on. Oh, and occasional Oscar bait about embattled screenwriters who stood up to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee six decades ago, even as their successors cave to, of all things, Kim’s UnKorean Activities Committee. American pop culture — supposedly the most powerful and influential force on the planet – has just surrendered to a one-man psycho-state economic basket-case that starves its own population.

Kim Jong-won.

Eugene Volokh makes some of the same points that Steyn raises:

Deadline Hollywood mentions several such theater chains. Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security stated that there was “no credible intelligence” that such threatened terrorist attacks would take place, but unsurprisingly, some chains are being extra cautious here.

I sympathize with the theaters’ situation — they’re in the business of showing patrons a good time, and they’re rightly not interested in becoming free speech martyrs, even if there’s only a small chance that they’ll be attacked. Moreover, the very threats may well keep moviegoers away from theater complexes that are showing the movie, thus reducing revenue from all the screens at the complex.

But behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Thugs who oppose movies that are hostile to North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, the Islamic State, extremist Islam generally or any other country or religion will learn the lesson. The same will go as to thugs who are willing to use threats of violence to squelch expression they oppose for reasons related to abortion, environmentalism, animal rights and so on.

In Stephen Harper’s Canada, politics beats economics every time

Filed under: Cancon, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Stephen Harper gets a lot of criticism for being an ideological hard-liner, but he gets nearly as much flak from small-government conservatives for being no better — and in some cases, much worse — than Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Earlier this month in Maclean’s, Stephen Gordon explained some of the reasons for Harper’s political and economic actions:

Politics, not economics, has also determined [Harper’s] strategy for achieving this goal [a smaller government-spending-to-GDP ratio]. If you asked an economist for the best way of reducing revenues, she’d probably prepare a list with the taxes that are the most harmful to the economy at the top, and the taxes that are the least harmful at the bottom. The GST would rank at or near the bottom of that list. (Here is a representative reaction to the Conservatives’ 2005 campaign promise to reduce the GST; here is an explanation for why economists think the GST is a good idea.) In economic terms, reducing the GST was probably the worst possible option available to the Conservatives.

But as far as politics goes, it was an inspired choice. It helped win the election, and — perhaps even more importantly — reducing the GST has made it that much harder for any future government to reverse the trend to lower spending. If the Liberals and the NDP were to ask an economist to provide a list of ways of generating the most revenues at the least economic cost, increasing the GST would be at or near the top of the list. But those two GST points are not going to come back to fill federal coffers in the foreseeable future. Both the Liberals and the NDP have campaigned at some point on anti-GST platforms, and history has not been kind to provincial governments that have raised the HST without an electoral mandate to do so. (The NDP’s proposal to increase corporate tax rates is the doppelgänger of the Conservatives’ GST cut. In economic terms, an increase in corporate taxes is probably the worst possible choice for generating revenues, but it’s a potential vote-winner. Maybe it will work for them as well as it did for the CPC.)

[…]

This brings us to the “starve the beast strategy” described in detail here: the reduction in revenues is now a justification for reducing expenditures. But, once again, the strategy is driven by politics, not economics. The elements are as follows (see also here and, most recently, here):

  1. Let transfer payments to individuals grow at the rate of GDP.
  2. Let transfer payments to provinces grow at the rate of GDP.
  3. Hold nominal direct program spending constant.

These elements have been in place in every budget since 2010. The economics of this approach are very dodgy: the economically efficient way to approach the problem of reducing spending is to perform a cost-benefit analysis and eliminate the programs that don’t pass the test. But the politics are something else. Cuts in transfer payments directly affect peoples’ personal finances, and could be reversed at no political cost. The same is true for cuts in transfer payments to the provinces; much of the Jean Chrétien-era cuts to the provinces were rescinded a few year later. The path of least political resistance is through direct program spending: the cost of paying federal public servants’ wages.

Rape culture

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 00:02

Michael Brendan Dougherty on the real rape culture in the United States:

… we don’t have to descend to the netherworld of Greek life to find evidence of an insidious rape culture. There are indeed state-supported institutions where gang rape is used as ritual initiation. There are institutional authorities that meet this culture with indifference or outright support. And we file the poor souls of this system under the heading: deserving victims. We joke in ways that suggest that if these rape victims did not want it, they should never have put on a prison uniform.

In this manner, rape is treated as a feature of our justice system when it happens to prisoners, rather than what it is: another grave crime.

[…]

Statistics on rape are notoriously unreliable. In or out of prison, victims often fear reporting on their assailants. And so the above statistics are likely to underestimate the problem. But we do know that once you include the prison population, men are raped more often in the United States than women.

In prison, men may become the victim of repeated gang rapes. Prisoners can be locked into cells with the men who prey on them. Some live under the constant threat of sexual assault for decades. Their efforts to report their rape are ignored or even punished, both by prison personnel and an inmate culture that destroys “snitches.” The threat of rape is so pervasive it causes some inmates to “consent” to sex with certain prisoners or officers as a way of avoiding rape by others.

Acceptance of prison rape is a stinking corruption. No conception of justice can include plunging criminals into an anarchic world of sexual terror. And obviously it thwarts any possibility of a rehabilitative justice that aims to restore criminals to lawful society. Inmates are not improved or better integrated into society through physical and psychological torture.

QotD: The twin rise and fall of unions and manufacturing

Filed under: Business, Economics, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Unions only help if the underlying economic situation is that the employer is able to charge a great deal more for the amount of product generated per worker-hour than the worker is getting — there is headroom for the worker’s wage to expand into while the manufacturer still makes a net profit. (If the manufacturer doesn’t make a net profit the business collapses and nobody gets paid.)

During the age that manufacturing nostalgisists remember nostalgically, this was true. For most of that period (roughly 1870-1970), the capital goods required to manufacture in a way price-competitive with the U.S. were so expensive that almost nobody outside the U.S. could afford them, and in the few places that could they were mainly preoccupied with supplying their domestic markets rather than the U.S. World War II prolonged this period by hammering those “few places” rather badly.

In that environment, U.S. firms could profit-take hugely, benefited by being scarce suppliers not just to the U.S. but (later on) to the whole world. And unions could pry loose enough of that margin to make manufacturing jobs comfortably middle-class.

All that ended in the early 1970s. A good marker for the change is the ability of the Japanese to make cheap cars for export and sell them for the U.S.

In the new world, the profit margins on manufactured goods narrowed dramatically. The manufacturing firms could no longer effectively ignore overseas competition in the U.S. domestic market. U.S. consumers no longer had to to pay the large price premiums required to sustain domestic manufacturing wages at pre-1970 levels, and they jumped right on that option.

In this environment, unions don’t help because they have almost no negotiating room. If they bid up workers’ wages, the jobs will evaporate or move overseas – not because corporations are being “greedy” but because they can no longer charge the prices that would allow such high wages to be sustained. Too much foreign labor and capital is ready to pounce on the first hint of price-taking.

Eric S. Raymond, “Why labor unions have lost their moxie”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-11-29.

December 18, 2014

“[C]onservatives are underrepresented in academia because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it”

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:55

The advantage of the quote in the headline is that it allows the person saying it to feel more positive about his or her own worldview, while side-stepping the real issue. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry looks at a new report that addresses this issue:

I have had the following experience more than once: I am speaking with a professional academic who is a liberal. The subject of the under-representation of conservatives in academia comes up. My interlocutor admits that this is indeed a reality, but says the reason why conservatives are under-represented in academia is because they don’t want to be there, or they’re just not smart enough to cut it. I say: “That’s interesting. For which other under-represented groups do you think that’s true?” An uncomfortable silence follows.

I point this out not to score culture-war points, but because it’s actually a serious problem. Social sciences and humanities cannot be completely divorced from the philosophy of those who practice it. And groupthink causes some questions not to be asked, and some answers not to be overly scrutinized. It is making our science worse. Anyone who cares about the advancement of knowledge and science should care about this problem.

That’s why I was very gratified to read this very enlightening draft paper [PDF] written by a number of social psychologists on precisely this topic, attacking the lack of political diversity in their profession and calling for reform. For those who have the time and care about academia, the whole thing truly makes for enlightening reading. The main author of the paper is Jonathan Haidt, well known for his Moral Foundations Theory (and a self-described liberal, if you care to know).

Although the paper focuses on the field of social psychology, its introduction as well as its overall logic make many of its points applicable to disciplines beyond social psychology.

The authors first note the well-known problems of groupthink in any collection of people engaged in a quest for the truth: uncomfortable questions get suppressed, confirmation bias runs amok, and so on.

But it is when the authors move to specific examples that the paper is most enlightening.

Admiral Grace Hopper

Filed under: History, Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:04

The US Naval Institute posted an article about the one and only Admiral Grace Hopper earlier this month to mark her birthday:

The typical career arc of a naval officer may run from 25-30 years. Most, however, don’t start at age 35. Yet when it comes to Rear Adm. Grace Hopper, well, the word “typical” just doesn’t apply.

Feisty. Eccentric. Maverick. Brilliant. Precise. Grace Hopper embodied all of those descriptions and more, but perhaps what defined her as much as anything else was the pride she had in wearing the Navy uniform for 43 years. Ironically, Rear Adm. Grace Hopper — “Amazing Grace” as she was known — had to fight to get into the Navy.

Grace Brewster Murray was born into a well-off family in New York on Dec. 9, 1906. She could have followed what many of her peers did during those times: attending college for a year or two, getting married then devoting their lives to their families and volunteer work.

Instead, Grace’s path would be less traveled. Encouraged to explore her innate curiosity on how things worked, a 7-year-old Grace dismantled all of the family’s alarm clocks trying to put them back together again. Rather than banishment from the practice, she was allowed one to practice on.

[…]

When she joined the WAVES in December 1943, Lt. j.g. Grace Hopper was 37 years old. Williams noted that after graduating at the top of her class of 800 officer candidates in June 1944, Hopper paid homage to Alexander Wilson Russell, her great-grandfather, the admiral who apparently took a “dim view of women and cats” in the Navy and laid flowers on his grave to “comfort and reassure him.”

Hopper was sent to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University under the guidance of Howard Aiken. The Harvard physics and applied mathematics professor helped create the first Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), better known as Mark I. He ran a lab where design, testing, modification and analysis of weapons were calculated. Most were specially trained women called computers. “So the first ‘computers’ were women who did the calculating on desk calculators,” Williams said. And the time it took for the computers to calculate was called “girl hours.”

What happened next put Hopper on a new path that would define the rest of her life, according to a passage in the book Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists in the U.S. Navy during World War II also by Williams.

On July 2, 1944, Hopper reported to duty and met Aiken.

“That’s a computing engine,” Aiken snapped at Hopper, pointing to the Mark I. “I would be delighted to have the coefficients for the interpolation of the arc tangent by next Thursday.”

Hopper was a mathematician, but what she wasn’t was a computer programmer. Aiken gave her a codebook, and as Hopper put it, a week to learn “how to program the beast and get a program running.”

Hopper overcame her lack of programming skills the same way she always tackled other obstacles; by being persistent and stopping at nothing to solve problems. She eventually would become well-versed in how the machine operated, all 750,000 parts, 530 miles of wire and 3 million wire connections crammed in a machine that was 8-feet tall and 50-feet wide.

A mandatory registry that might actually do some good

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

At Reason, Ed Krayewski suggests that a Police Offenders Registry might be an excellent start to reduce some of the worst interactions between the police and the public they are supposed to serve:

This week, the Department of Justice announced new guidelines against racial profiling. The changes don’t actually change all that much. As regular incidents of police brutality get more and more mainstream media attention, it’s time for a bold move from the White House.

There’s a moral obligation to keep bad cops off the streets. A job with a police department is not a right and shouldn’t be treated like one. Police unions that push for permissive rules that end up protecting bad cops pose a serious public safety threat. Nevertheless, dismantling them where they’ve taken root is a difficult prospect even in the long-term. There are other ways to keep bad cops off the streets. The federal government, and state governments, ought to create and encourage the use of a police offender registry list. Such a list would register individuals who while employed as law enforcement officers were found unfit for duty or faced serious disciplinary issues they may have resigned to avoid. Just as any other component of comprehensive police reform, this won’t eliminate excessive police violence, but it’s a start.

When actually identified, a surprising (or not) number of officers involved in controversial, high-profile use of force incidents have previously disciplinary history. Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City cop who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, had been previously accused, at least twice, of racially-motivated misconduct, including strip searching a man in the middle of the street and allegedly hitting his testicles. The police union in New York City is among the strongest in the country. When a rookie cop shot Akai Gurley in apparent panic last month, he didn’t think twice to reportedly contact his union rep first. A man lay dying in a stairwell for no other reason that he startled a rookie, and the fact that the officer called his union representative before calling for assistance isn’t shocking enough to lead to the officer’s termination. Even if it were, it would still be impossible to terminate the officer immediately. While all this is happening, the state of New York is on the verge of placing even more of the disciplinary regime that applies to cops under the purview of the police unions.

The Tsar’s new clothes

Filed under: Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

At Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce suspects that the folks at NATO headquarters are not getting as much sleep these days as they used to:

… it appears that the image of Putin as this ruthless, chess-playing genius wrongfooting silly old Cameron, Merkel, and the chap with the funny moonface from France is not quite standing up to scrutiny. Here’s a report by Bloomberg:

    “The foundations on which Vladimir Putin built his 15 years in charge of Russia are giving way. The meltdown of the ruble, which has plunged 18 percent against the dollar in the last two days alone, is endangering the mantra of stability around which Putin has based his rule. While his approval rating is near an all-time high on the back of his stance over Ukraine, the currency crisis risks eroding it and undermining his authority, Moscow-based analysts said.

    In a surprise move today, the Russian central bank raised interest rates by the most in 16 years, taking its benchmark to 17 percent. That failed to halt the rout in the ruble, which has plummeted to about 70 rubles a dollar from 34 as oil prices dived by almost half to below $60 a barrel. Russia relies on the energy industry for as much as a quarter of economic output, Moody’s Investors Service said in a Dec. 9 report.

Now might also be a good time to remind ourselves of the “curse of natural resources”.

It would be worth wondering what are the odds that Putin can last a lot longer in power. That said, a sobering thought is that when regimes are in deep trouble, they can do desperate, crazy things, as Argentina did in 1982 by invading the Falklands. If I were a planner for NATO right now, I’d be having a nervous Christmas and New Year ahead of me.

QotD: Fear and fairy tales

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it – because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.

G.K. Chesterton, “The Red Angel”, Tremendous Trifles, 1909.

December 17, 2014

Ferdinand Foch I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:34

Published on 15 Dec 2014

Ferdinand Foch was one of the most famous Entente generals of World War 1. He already began his military career in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. Until the end of WW1 he rose to the rank of Commander in Chief of the allied forces. War had always been central to Foch’s life, though neither he nor anyone else really foresaw the size, scope, and horrors of World War One. In this video we’re showing his impressive life.

Canadian telcos: “there is no need for legally mandated surveillance and interception functionality”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:10

Sounds good, right? Canada’s telecom companies telling the government that there’s no reason to pass laws requiring surveillance capabilities … except that the reason they’re saying this is that “they will be building networks that will feature those capabilities by default“:

After years of failed bills, public debate, and considerable controversy, lawful access legislation received royal assent last week. Public Safety Minister Peter MacKay’s Bill C-13 lumped together measures designed to combat cyberbullying with a series of new warrants to enhance police investigative powers, generating criticism from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, civil liberties groups, and some prominent victims rights advocates. They argued that the government should have created cyberbullying safeguards without sacrificing privacy.

While the bill would have benefited from some amendments, it remains a far cry from earlier versions that featured mandatory personal information disclosure without court oversight and required Internet providers to install extensive surveillance and interception capabilities within their networks.

The mandatory disclosure of subscriber information rules, which figured prominently in earlier lawful access bills, were gradually reduced in scope and ultimately eliminated altogether. Moreover, a recent Supreme Court ruling raised doubt about the constitutionality of the provisions.

[…]

Perhaps the most notable revelation is that Internet providers have tried to convince the government that they will voluntarily build surveillance capabilities into their networks. A 2013 memorandum prepared for the public safety minister reveals that Canadian telecom companies advised the government that the leading telecom equipment manufacturers, including Cisco, Juniper, and Huawei, all offer products with interception capabilities at a small additional cost.

In light of the standardization of the interception capabilities, the memo notes that the Canadian providers argue that “the telecommunications market will soon shift to a point where interception capability will simply become a standard component of available equipment, and that technical changes in the way communications actually travel on communications networks will make it even easier to intercept communications.”

In other words, Canadian telecom providers are telling the government there is no need for legally mandated surveillance and interception functionality since they will be building networks that will feature those capabilities by default.

Carrying The Load – London Midland & Scottish Railway Documentary

Filed under: Britain, History, Railways — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Published on 20 Apr 2012

London Midland & Scottish Railway educational film that explains the role played by the railways during World War Two.

The Internet is on Fire | Mikko Hypponen | TEDxBrussels

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Published on 6 Dec 2014

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. The Internet is on Fire

Mikko is a world class cyber criminality expert who has led his team through some of the largest computer virus outbreaks in history. He spoke twice at TEDxBrussels in 2011 and in 2013. Every time his talks move the world and surpass the 1 million viewers. We’ve had a huge amount of requests for Mikko to come back this year. And guess what? He will!

Prepare for what is becoming his ‘yearly’ talk about PRISM and other modern surveillance issues.

QotD: The mark of a true-born nobleman

Filed under: Britain, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Now, no one in my life that I could remember had ever been so damned civil to me, except toad-eaters like Speedicut who didn’t count. I found myself liking his lordship, and did not realize that I was seeing him at his best. In this mood, he was a charming man enough, and looked well. He was taller than I, straight as a lance, and very slender, even to his hands. Although he was barely forty, he was already bald, with a bush of hair above either ear and magnificent whiskers. His nose was beaky and his eyes blue and prominent and unwinking — they looked out on the world with that serenity which marks the nobleman whose uttermost ancestor was born a nobleman, too. It is I the look that your parvenu would give half his fortune for, that unrufflable gaze of the spoiled child of fortune who knows with unshakeable certainty that he is right and that the world is exactly ordered for his satisfaction and pleasure. It is the look that makes underlings writhe and causes revolutions. I saw it then, and it remained changeless as long as I knew him, even through the roll-call beneath Causeway Heights when the grim silence as the names were shouted testified to the loss of five hundred of his command. ‘It was no fault of mine,’ he said then, and he didn’t just believe it; he knew it.

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman, 1969.

December 16, 2014

Affluence and the rise of major modern religions

Filed under: Economics, History, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:30

Colby Cosh linked to this article in Popular Archaeology, which discusses an interesting idea about what triggered the rise of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Islam:

It seems almost self-evident today that religion is on the side of spiritual and moral concerns, but that was not always so, Baumard explains. In hunter-gatherer societies and early chiefdoms, for instance, religious tradition focused on rituals, sacrificial offerings, and taboos designed to ward off misfortune and evil.

That changed between 500 BCE and 300 BCE — a time known as the “Axial Age” — when new doctrines appeared in three places in Eurasia. “These doctrines all emphasized the value of ‘personal transcendence,'” the researchers write, “the notion that human existence has a purpose, distinct from material success, that lies in a moral existence and the control of one’s own material desires, through moderation (in food, sex, ambition, etc.), asceticism (fasting, abstinence, detachment), and compassion (helping, suffering with others).”

While many scholars have argued that large-scale societies are possible and function better because of moralizing religion, Baumard and his colleagues weren’t so sure. After all, he says, some of “the most successful ancient empires all had strikingly non-moral high gods.” Think of Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Mayans.

In the new study, the researchers tested various theories to explain the history in a new way by combining statistical modeling on very long-term quantitative series with psychological theories based on experimental approaches. They found that affluence — which they refer to as “energy capture” — best explains what is known of the religious history, not political complexity or population size. Their Energy Capture model shows a sharp transition toward moralizing religions when individuals were provided with 20,000 kcal/day, a level of affluence suggesting that people were generally safe, with roofs over their heads and plenty of food to eat, both in the present time and into the foreseeable future.

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