April 8, 2014

Choosing when to die

Filed under: Europe, Health, Liberty — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 06:52

Colby Cosh discusses the latest Swiss innovation to come to the tabloid newspapers’ attention:

Five or six times I must have read the story about the relatively healthy little old English lady who killed herself rather than struggle on through the “digital age”, and I still cannot quite think what to make of it. Surely there is something noble about leaving life on what are as nearly as possible one’s own terms, with some strength left, after a full, long, largely happy existence.

Unlike a lot of self-described “environmentalists”, she clearly believed the Malthusian script and took the recommended action: “The environmentalist was also worried about the damage being wrought on the planet by overcrowding and pollution.” If she was that worried about poor old Mother Earth, one might wonder why she took so long to take her leave of it.

I suppose Dignitas does its best to make sure oldies aren’t being urged to suicide by impatient heirs, but surely there is only so much the staff can do, and it is in their interest to do as little as possible. It is certainly easy to imagine ethically dubious ways of encouraging the irritability of a cranky, inconvenient old person. Oo, hardly worth the trouble of gettin’ out of bed in the morning, is it, gran? Oh, dear, are your lungs givin’ you a hard time again? Tsk, must make you want to chuck it all in sometimes. If you are a person of British descent, you take in a certain amount of this glum, boggy attitude with every meal anyway. It comes naturally.

And there is my only real concern about institutionalizing the right to die … that it will encourage a certain haste: not among the elderly or afflicted, but among their caregivers, descendents, and prospective legatees. I think you should have the right to decide when to die, but it is a situation that offers the unscrupulous and unprincipled a quicker route to impose their desires on others.

But who is ready to have the government issue packets of Nembutal every five years with Canada Pension Plan cheques? Whatever solution we decide on for the convenience of the legitimately ailing or hopeless, I want the doctors — who, after all, belong to a profession that cannot seem to stop prescribing useless antibiotics for upper respiratory infections — to have as little to do with it as possible. Physicians are not saints, and they will follow the “easier for me” heuristic, like other primates, if non-negotiable aspects of their duty are thrown open to fiddling. “Do no harm” has been at the top of the list for 2,400 years, and, please, keep in mind, it took them 2,200 of those to give up therapeutic bloodletting.


January 23, 2014

Machinima falls for the old “novelty death warrant” trick

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:10

At Techdirt, Timothy Geigner recounts the potential PR disaster facing Machinima after they attempted to buy positive coverage from their own contributors for the Xbox One:

It began with a thread on NeoGAF that included text from an email Machinima was sending out to their partners which offered bonus CPM (cost per thousand views, the standard way advertising is priced) payments on videos covering Microsoft’s new console. Their requirements for this “promotion” in the email were already problematic, including gameplay footage from an Xbox One game, a mention of playing the game on the Xbox One console in the video, and a vague reference to following the “guidelines listed in the assignment.” Just in those lines, most journalists would find deal-killers. While the line on whether or not YouTube video makers covering games like this being journalists may be a bit blurry, there’s little doubt that thousands of YouTubers look to these folks for help on their purchasing decisions. In other words, they’re fame rests squarely on their reputations for honest reviews. Minus those reputations, these people have no following.

Which is what makes the details in those “guidelines” mentioned above so misguided.

    Now here’s where we enter really sketchy territory: Ars Technica tracked down a copy of Machinima‘s contract for the promotion, and there’s one line that stands out: “You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.” What’s more, these YouTubers can’t even be transparent about this arrangement, according to the contract:

    “You agree to keep confidential at all times all matters relating to this Agreement, including, without limitation, the Promotional Requirements, and the CPM Compensation, listed above. You understand that You may not post a copy of this Agreement or any terms thereof online or share them with any third party (other than a legal or financial representative). You agree that You have read the Nondisclosure Agreement (attached hereto and marked as Exhibit “A”) and You understand and agree to all of terms of the Nondisclosure Agreement, which is incorporated as part of this Agreement.”

Hear that sound? That’s the sound of this entire promotion exploding with enough payload-force to also take out both the guilty and innocent Machinima video-producers. What this does is put everyone under suspicion. Given what we said about the importance of reputations above, this could be the meteor that destroys Machinima‘s world.

Yes, if you’re following along a home, the post title is a Blackadder reference.

January 19, 2014

QotD: Ethics in Washington D.C.

Filed under: Government, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:02

I came across a very fine quote from a retired Marine COL Doug R., “In the perverse environment that is Washington the degrees of unethical behavior make the mere liar the most honorable man in the room. Some of the whores think they are nuns.”

Allen B. West, “Robert Gates and ‘whores who think they are nuns’”, AllenBWest.com, 2014-01-18

November 15, 2013

Corporations and social responsibility

Filed under: Business, Government, Law — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:17

In this week’s Goldberg File email, Jonah Goldberg talks about the notion that corporations should operate with an eye to “social responsibility”:

Milton Friedman was famously opposed to the whole idea of “corporate social responsibility.” His argument was that corporations have a single obligation: to maximize profits for shareholders. When CEOs spend money on gitchy-goo feel-good projects, they are exceeding their authority and wandering outside the lines of their job description. I’ve always been very sympathetic to this view. If you asked me to invest $10,000 dollars in your startup company and then I found out you spent $5,000 of it to sponsor a program to teach prison-gang members to settle their disagreements by acting out scenes from Little Women, I’d be pretty pissed. That’s not why I gave you the money. And it’s pretty shabby of you to buy fame and praise for your generosity while spending someone else’s money. Indeed, it’s not much less selfish than blowing it on a three-day bender with the mayor of Toronto.

There are lots of different takes on this argument and, because this is my “news”letter, I choose not to deal with most of them. My problem with the profit-maximizing-über-alles creed for Big Business is that it offers no principled or moral reason for Big Business to stay out of Uncle Sam’s bed. If the federal government can make it rain Benjamins for any business willing to twerk for its amusement, why should GE or Big Pharma or the insurance companies demur?

Of course, some businessmen understand the risks of getting in bed with the government. But, since there’s lots of money to be made, there will always be other businessmen perfectly happy to put on the French-maid uniform and bark like a dog.

Even Adam Smith said, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” That’s true. What’s even more true is that when government officials and business leaders sit down to talk, the inevitable result is a new “public-private partnership” that uses government force to limit competition from non-whorish corporations. Railroad magnates lobbied for the Interstate Commerce Commission. AT&T asked the government to make them a monopoly in the name of “efficiency” so they could clear the field of competition. Andrew Carnegie wanted government control of the steel industry so he could rely on Uncle Sam to guarantee his profit margins. GE loves Obama’s green-energy stuff, because without the inherent subsidies and regulations, it couldn’t make money off of its green tech.

I have no problem with contractors doing work for the government. It’s better that the guys building roads and bridges work for the private sector. But when big businesses agree to make the country less free, the market less competitive, Americans less prosperous, and the state more powerful just to make a few more bucks for their shareholders, it makes me think that Milton Friedman was wrong. We need a free-market version of corporate social responsibility. We need to equip businessmen with an ethical code that tells them there’s a principled reason not to get in bed with the government. They’d still be free to violate that principle, of course, but if they did, I hope they’d have the good sense not to come running to us to complain that the government has asked them to eat a bowl of dogsh**t.

July 3, 2013

We’re just trying to raise your awareness…

Filed under: Health, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

… because we’re morally and ethically superior to you unwashed plebs:

Last Thursday was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Day. If you missed it, that’s probably because every week there are awareness days. We’re swamped by them. There are literally thousands of organisations whose mission is to raise our awareness. There is also a vast number of politicians, policymakers, experts, professionals, academics and earnest volunteers who are all devoted to the cause of raising awareness.

Those who set themselves up to raise the public’s awareness are not just providing information; they’re also making a statement about themselves, about who they are. They, unlike those who require their support, are aware. Awareness is presented as a state of being all of us should aspire to attain. In its common usage today, the term awareness resists any clear definitions. It is not simply about knowing or understanding. [. . .]

Campaigns designed to raise awareness are as much about advertising the status of the campaigners as they are about changing the outlook of a target audience. For example, advocates of breastfeeding produce literature that affirms the virtuous nature of their own lifestyles while also inviting those who have not seen the light to become aware. The very term ‘raising awareness’ involves drawing a distinction between those who are enlightened, who are aware of something, and those who are not. It draws attention to the fundamental contrast between those who know and those who are ignorant, between the morally superior and the morally inferior. So someone who allows his children to eat junk food is not only unaware and ignorant; he’s also morally questionable.

Awareness-raising campaigns impute to their advocates the values of intelligence, sensitivity, broadmindedness, sophistication and enlightenment. For that reason, the mission of raising awareness has become a key cultural resource for those who want to distinguish themselves from others. Awareness-raisers are invariably drawn towards inflating the behavioural and cultural distinctions between themselves and the rest of society; they are preoccupied with constructing a lifestyle that contrasts as sharply as possible to the lifestyles of their moral inferiors. What is really important about their lifestyles is not so much the values they exhort, but that they are different, in every detail, from the lives led by obese, junk-food eating, gas-guzzling, xenophobic and fundamentalist consumers of the tabloid press and junk culture.

Sociologically speaking, the act of raising awareness is really a claim for moral respect, and more importantly moral authority. The possession of awareness is a marker of superiority — and the absence of awareness is taken as a sign of inferiority. Those who refuse to ‘be aware’ are frequently morally condemned

May 19, 2013

Stephen Harper’s chief of staff submits his resignation

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:42

Maclean’s covers the morning’s breaking news from Ottawa:

The prime minister’s chief of staff announced his resignation early Sunday, saying he left his post in light of the controversy around his personal handling of Sen. Mike Duffy’s expense payments.

Nigel Wright stepped down after a phone conversation with Stephen Harper, signalling a recognition that he — and not Duffy’s improper expense claims — had become the story.

Ray Novak, who has been by Harper’s side since 2001, will be the prime minister’s new chief of staff. Novak is thought to represent stability and is well known by all the federal ministers.

The Prime Minister’s Office said earlier this week that Wright personally paid off $90,000 in inappropriately claimed housing expenses for Duffy, prompting critics to complain that the bailout violated ethics rules that prohibit senators from accepting gifts.

I’m surprised it took this long for Wright to resign … I’d expected him to fall on his sword the day after it was revealed that he’d paid Duffy’s expenses with a personal cheque.

April 14, 2013

Competition and co-operation in a free market

Filed under: Business, Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:15

Sheldon Richman suggests that some people’s objections to free trade and free markets isn’t so much ethical as aesthetic:

Market advocates tend to respect the intellect of their fellow human beings. You can tell by their reliance on philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments when trying to persuade others. But what if most people’s aversion to the market isn’t founded in philosophy, morality, economics, or history? What if their objection is aesthetic?

More and more I’ve come to think this is the case, and I believe I witnessed an example recently at a lecture I gave at St. Lawrence University. During the Q&A a woman asked, in all sincerity, why society couldn’t do without money, since so many bad things are associated with it. She also suggested that cooperation is better than market competition. I replied that since money facilitates exchange and exchange is cooperation, it follows that money facilitates cooperation — a lovely thing, indeed. Government, I added, corrupts money.

I also said that competition is what happens when we are free to decide with whom we will cooperate. I don’t know if my response prompted her to rethink her objections to the market, but I am confident her objection was aesthetic. For her, money and competition are ugly. Perhaps I didn’t respond on an aesthetic level; it’s something I have to work on. But I tried, and so must we all when we encounter these sorts of objections.

Like that nice woman, many decent people dislike markets because they find them unattractive. And they associate markets with other things they find unattractive besides money and competition: (rugged, atomistic) individualism, selfishness, and profit. F.A. Hayek noticed this, writing in “Individualism: True and False”, “the belief that individualism approves and encourages human selfishness is one of the main reasons why so many people dislike it.” If that’s the case, philosophical, moral, economic, and historical arguments may fall on deaf ears. The objections must be met on an aesthetic level.

March 13, 2013

The problem isn’t media bias, it’s failure at ordinary journalism

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:57

In the Huffington Post, Steven Greenhut discusses the old conservative hobby horse of “media bias” and suggests the problem isn’t bias at all:

In my talks to conservative bloggers and activists who want to understand and influence the media, I downplay the “liberal bias” meme. Sure, most reporters I’ve encountered in my years working for newspapers have a liberal worldview that influences their story selection and coverage. But most are reasonably fair and professional, so I encourage conservatives to try engagement before vilification as they pitch their story lines to reporters.

But my recent experience on the receiving end of a series of supposed exposes has left me rethinking my tendency to cut fellow journalists some slack. I’ve been appalled by the shoddy reporting techniques used to try to embarrass the organization where I work — frustrated by reporters who don’t get the other side of the story and who seem uninterested in investigating anything, but merely want to play a game of “gotcha.”

I’ve been saddened to watch notable publications — the Guardian and Columbia Journalism Review, in particular — republish the hyperbolic reports of left-wing activist groups without bothering to interview the subject of the investigation before publication or doing basic fact-checking or even allowing a rebuttal.

My beef isn’t with these publications’ ideology or biases — bias is an inescapable part of being human — but with their lack of standards and ethics.

March 2, 2013

Ethical debates of the very near future: species de-extinction

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:12

Matt Ridley on the soon-to-be-possible reversal of species extinction:

The founders of Revive and Restore aren’t mainstream scientists, but they’re not people to be taken lightly, either. Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan are a husband-and-wife team with a track record of starting unusual but successful organizations — in his case, the Whole Earth Catalog and the Global Business Network; in hers, the consumer-focused startups Direct Medical Knowledge and DNA Direct. They’ve attracted the interest of the pioneering Harvard University DNA sequencing and synthesis expert George Church.

Their argument is that it’s time to start tentatively trying de-extinction and thinking through its ethical and ecological implications. There are already projects under way to revive extinct subspecies like the European aurochs (a type of wild cattle) and the Pyrenean ibex, or bucardo. In the latter case, when the last female (Celia) was killed by a falling tree in 2000, her tissue was cloned. At least one fetus survived to term in a surrogate mother goat, but it died soon after birth.

A full species that’s been extinct for decades like the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) or the passenger pigeon — the last one of which, Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo 99 years ago — will be a taller order, since the DNA from long dead specimens is fragmented. Yet Ben Novak, a young researcher working with the ancient-DNA expert Beth Shapiro at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has extracted passenger pigeon DNA from the toe pad of a museum specimen and sequenced it. Dr. Church hopes to use one of the newly invented letter-by-letter gene-replacement techniques, such as Talens or Crispr, to transform the genome of a related species called the band-tailed pigeon into that of a passenger pigeon.

January 23, 2013

Tyler Cowen explains why recreating Neanderthals won’t be happening soon

Filed under: Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:14

Even if we have the technology to do it, there are lots of ways for the experiment to go very wrong (without going the Jurassic Park route):

…could they be taught in our schools? Who would rear the first generation? Would human parents find this at all rewarding? Do they have enough impulse control to move freely in human society? How happy would they be with such a limited number of peers? What public health issues would be involved and how would we learn about those issues in advance? What would happen the first time a Neanderthal kills a human child? Carries and transmits a contagious disease? By the way, how much resistance would the Neanderthals have to modern diseases?

What kinds of “human rights” would we issue to them? Would we end up treating them better than lab chimpanzees? Would they be covered by ACA and have emergency room rights?

Unlike the debate over recreating extinct animal species like the dodo or the passenger pigeon, Neanderthals were close relations to modern humans: under most of our ethical and moral systems, they would be people, not animals. Unless we’re so debased that we can countenance restarting the Nazi experiment that we forcefully terminated in 1945, we could not treat neoNeanderthals as anything other than intelligent, self-directing, self-owning beings. By bringing them back from the dead, we’d be taking on the moral requirement to maintain them and sustain them.

We have no way of knowing if a group of neoNeanderthals could peacefully co-exist with humanity, and no way of finding that out without running the experiment. That’s not a decision that can or should be taken by a single person or a group of scientists at a university. This wanders too close to “playing god” of old science fiction stories: those stories rarely turned out well for the non-gods.

January 2, 2013

Oh, this is ironic…

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Media, Wine — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:01

Several years ago, I got the only takedown notice I’ve ever received. The person objecting to me posting a short quotation of hers (with full attribution and link to the original) is now in the news herself:

An Ottawa wine writer used reviews from other writers on her website without properly crediting them. And as if that’s not ripe enough, a U.S. online wine magazine says she requires some wineries to buy a subscription to her website before she’ll review their wines.

Call it a tempest in a wine bottle. Writer Natalie MacLean has uncorked a debate about journalism etiquette and ethics online and touched off an oenophilic flap that’s produced underlying acidity and a bitter aftertaste in the usually genteel subculture.

“It’s all very tawdry,” says wine writer Tony Aspler. “The wine writers’ community is very close and collegial. To have someone behave this way, to take reviews and not attribute properly, it’s not done.”

MacLean, who writes at nataliemaclean.com, says she was surprised when Michael Pinkus, president of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada, objected to her use of others’ reviews. She got legal advice, she says, and has now gone back through past postings to fully attribute the reviews. She denies that wineries must pay to subscribe to her site to get reviewed.

“It’s been extremely painful,” says MacLean, named the World’s Best Drink Journalist in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards. “I’m more than happy to discuss the issues, to focus on the facts, but this has gone well beyond that. There’s been a lot of personal attacks. You can look for yourself on the blogs.”

So the person who objected to me quoting her was actually engaged in ripping off her fellow wine writers without attribution? That made my day.

December 11, 2012

Reason.tv: James Payne on Six Political Illusions

Filed under: Economics, Government, Liberty, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:27

“The first thing [children] think about of government is that it is like a super parent,” says author and Reason Magazine contributor James Payne. Payne points out that seeing government as having the virtues of a parent — wisdom, responsibility, money, unlimited funds for whatever you need — has lead to illusions about what role the government should be playing in our lives.

Payne sat down to talk with Reason TV at Libertopia 2012 in San Diego, Calif. to discuss his book, Six Political Illusions: A Primer on Government for Idealists Fed Up with History Repeating Itself.

November 25, 2012

Anthropology and hacker culture

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:56

Cory Doctorow on a new book by Biella Coleman called Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking:

[Coleman's dissertation has been], edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.

Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I’d never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman’s work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.

November 20, 2012

Microsoft’s essential problem

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:43

ESR explains why Microsoft has been languishing in the doldrums for the past several years:

This is why Microsoft looks so doomed and desperate. Yes, Steve Ballmer is a colossal fool who has never met a strategic decision he couldn’t bungle, but in an important way that is symptom rather than cause. Dysfunctional leaders arise from dysfunctional cultures; the problem behind Ballmer is that Microsoft’s culture is broken, and the problem behind that is that the monopolistic/authoritarian goals around which Microsoft’s culture was constructed are incompatible with any other kind of excellence.

A more poetic way to put this is Tolkien’s “Oft evil will shall evil mar.” Google’s “Don’t be evil” isn’t mere idealism or posturing, it’s an attempt to sustain the kind of culture in which excellence is possible. (Whether and how long this will be a successful attempt is a different question.)

Apple’s turn is next.

September 23, 2012

Plagiarism in the Globe and Mail

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:21

Writing at Maclean’s, Colby Cosh outlines the case against Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente and the Globe‘s public editor Sylvia Stead:

Journalistic plagiarism is ordinarily regarded as what a lawyer would call a strict-liability offence. It may not be deserving of a career death penalty in any particular case, but the evidence of plagiarism usually suffices to establish the crime. Stead’s procedure as a public editor appears to involve looking into the soul of the accused and searching therein for gremlins. Does she, one wonders, believe in the objective existence of plagiarism at all? Again, she does not use the term, and she will not believe that Wente had heard even a rumour, even a whisper, of Gardner’s prior work for the Citizen.

Well, it is not likely there will ever be a case in which Stead is presented with close-up video footage of Wente using her mouse to highlight someone else’s words and pressing Control-C and Control-V. That is why the strict-liability standard is usual. If Stead will not apply it — if she is willing to accept any denial from a fellow Globe lifer, however preposterous — then how can she ever, as an impartial judge of journalism ethics, deliver a conviction? Can it be that the whole point is to have the appearance of accountability without the actual possibility of it?

Update, 24 September: Chris Selley in the National Post:

I think I’ve narrowed down my top two discreditable aspects, though: One, Stead’s reference to the fact that Wente “writes three times a week,” which could only pertain to a defence of overwork; and two, this astonishing sentence: “There appears to be some truth to the concerns but not on every count.”

Here’s the thing. I have some experience cornering plagiarists, and these are two of their standard defences: “Most of the allegations aren’t that bad,” which of course says nothing about the worst of them; and “I’m so busy,” which isn’t a defence at all but rather an appeal for clemency. And yet here is Sylvia Stead, Public Editor of The Globe and Mail, effectively raising these arguments on Wente’s behalf. This isn’t public editing; it’s public relations, and inept public relations at that.

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