URLs du Jour

2021-06-07

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  • Andrew Sullivan Forgiven, For Now. He seemed to go a little nuts about Sarah Palin's uterus awhile back, but he makes some needs-to-be-said points in his channelling of Orwell: Our Politics And The English Language.

    From time to time, I make sure to re-read George Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics And The English Language.” It remains the best guide to writing non-fiction, and it usually prompts a wave of self-loathing even more piercing than my habitual kind. What it shows so brilliantly is how language itself is central to politics, that clarity is as hard as it is vital, and that blather is as lazy as it is dangerous. It’s dangerous because the relationship between our words and our politics goes both ways: “[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” We create language and language creates us. If the language is corrupted, so are we.

    It's a recurring theme here. The most egregious example of late was the open letter from the UNH Lecturers United (still available on their home page) which I discussed in full here. It contained the sentence:

    Since the election of Donald Trump, faculty have been encouraged on multiple occasions to respect and tolerate the political positions of students that they may find reprehensible.

    Even I, with negligible formal education, noticed the dangling modifier. What's "reprehensible" modifying here: the students, or their political positions?

    It doesn't matter, other than to illustrate the point Orwell was making: the synergy between the foolish thoughts of the UNH Lecturers and their slovenly language.

    Andrew has his own example, a recent statement of "The Institute for Antiracism in Medicine.” His summary, in language worthy of Orwell: "It is chock-full of long, compounded nouns and adjectives, riddled with the passive voice, lurching and leaning, like a passenger walking the aisle on a moving train, on pre-packaged phrases to keep itself going."


  • Or Maybe You'd Prefer To Not Do That. Kyle Smith lays down an ultimatum: You Can Have My Mask When You Pry It off My Cold, Dead Face.

    Sure, I’ve read the studies that say masks probably don’t do much of anything, and yes, I’ve been quintuple-vaccinated. But I’m going to keep wearing my mask forever. It feels like the right thing to do. I know this because it’s the opposite of what those horrible right-wingers think. You call this a meaningless strip of fabric; I call it my emotional-support cloth.

    Masking up every day when I get out of bed fills me with a sense of calm, wellness, and moral superiority. Frankly, I’m not ready for a future in which I just go around the community without a visible display of my self-righteousness. I suppose I could get a Queen Kamala tattoo on my face or something, but that seems impractical. (What will I do when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is president, haha.)

    Signaling things to others is a really important part of my identity. That’s why I have one of those “DARWIN” bumper stickers on my fuel-efficent Mini Cooper, why I have an “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE” yard sign (okay, in my case it’s a window sign because we don’t have a yard in Park Slope), and why I spent nine years getting a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies. Keeping a mask on indefinitely is like shorthand for all of the stuff I want to indicate to others, right there on my face.

    I believe Kyle is angling for a higher education gig. He should try UNH. The "Lecturers United" might not recognize his reprehensibility until it was too late.


  • Good Advice To Which Few In Power Will Pay Attention. Katherine Mangu-Ward has it, from the latest print Reason: Don’t Try To Fix Big Tech With Politics.

    I don't know the correct level of content moderation by Facebook, Twitter, Google, or Amazon. And neither do you.

    Sometimes I can pinpoint what looks to me like an obvious misstep: Facebook's decision to block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden's laptop in the weeks before the 2020 presidential election, for instance, or Amazon's refusal to carry a small number of books about trans issues without adequately explaining its decision. Tweets containing threats of violence left up indefinitely while mere tasteless jokes get swiftly removed.

    But I also know deciding what and whom to allow on your platform is a hard problem. Scale is hard: I know I'm not seeing millions of pieces of spam eliminated, bots blocked, irrelevant content filtered, duplicates removed. Consistency is hard: I know sometimes what's in my feed is the work of a robot doing a good job following bad directions, and sometimes it's a human being doing a bad job following good directions. The application of Hanlon's razor is almost certainly called for in many cases of perceived bias: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

    We're fortunate to have KMW. At least when Big Government has wrecked Big Tech in a few years, we can dig out the article and say "She told you so."

    Um, maybe we should preserve a hard copy, just in case things are really wrecked.


  • That Veil Around Your Pro-Censorship Argument Is Pretty Thin, Alex Via Slashdot, I came across a Fast Company article from Alex Pasternack, a bad example illustrating KMW's point: How Amazon became an engine for anti-vaccine misinformation. It's pretty ominous:

    Search for “vaccines” on Amazon’s bookstore, and a banner encourages shoppers to “learn more” about COVID-19, with a link to the Centers for Disease Control. But the text almost vanishes amid the eye-catching book covers spreading out below, many of which carry Amazon’s orange “bestseller” badge.

    One top-ranked book that promises “the other side of the story” of vaccine science is #1 on Amazon’s list for “Health Policy.” Next to it, smiling infants grace the cover of the top-selling book in “Teen Health,” co-authored by an Oregon pediatrician whose license was suspended last year over an approach to vaccinations that placed “many of his patients at serious risk of harm.” Another book, Anyone Who Tells You That Vaccines Are Safe and Effective Is Lying, by a prominent English conspiracy theorist, promises “the facts about vaccination — so that you can make up your own mind.” There are no warning notices or fact checks—studies have shown no link between vaccines and autism, for instance—but there are over 1,700 five-star ratings and a badge: the book is #1 on Amazon’s list for “Children’s Vaccination & Immunization.”

    Ah, that's the problem with free speech, ain't it? People will use it to peddle their lies and fantasies.

    That's also the problem with Amazon's removal of some books from its platform based on their vague "Content Guidelines". Once you start yanking books, there's no easy way to stop sliding down that slippery slope. People like Alex will always be around to demand you yank according to their guidelines.

    As I type, the worldwide deaths blamed on Covid according to Google is 3.73 million. How many of those are attributable to people buying bad books on Amazon? Maybe more than zero. But almost certainly a rounding error on the total.

    But that number is tiny compared to the deaths brought to us, directly and indirectly, by various totalitarian ideologies. And yet you can still by this book and this book at Amazon. Why isn't Alex griping about that?

    But Alex (see his article) is especially critical toward books that have (um) a less-than-reverential tone toward Dr. Fauci and the CDC. Understandable, right? We all know that the CDC and Fauci are eminently trustworthy. Right?


  • You Would Hope So. David R. Henderson wonders if it's this simple: Less Regulation, More Information: Better Results?.

    Many economists, after noting that government regulations have harmful unintended consequences, advocate replacing government regulation with government-provided information. These economists see the bad consequences of having government officials make decisions for people and not allowing people to make their own decisions. At the same time, they argue, the government officials might have good information and if they simply provide that information to the public, that will improve the situation.

    In the cases other economists and I discuss, a replacement of regulation with government provision of information would be an improvement. With such a shift from regulation to information provision, people could take the government’s information into account but still make their own decisions. Would it be preferable to a situation with no regulation? For it to be preferable, the government would have to provide good information and not mislead people. But does the government generally provide good information? Figuring out the answer would take years of research, but recent evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some basic reasoning about government officials’ incentives, should make us hesitant to trust government information.

    Henderson provides examples of mis/disinformation from the "trustworthy" government officials. There's no substitute for skepticism and examining incentives.