Slippery Slope

Unfortunately, THE WEEK magazine didn’t publish this excellent blurb on their site, but it ran in the 6/28/2013 print edition. I thought it was such an excellent critique of a too-common rhetorical technique that I wanted to post it here:

Logicians call the slippery slope a a classic logical fallacy. There’s no reason to reject doing one thing, they say, just because it might open the door for some undesirable extreme; permitting “A” does not suspend our ability to say “but not B” or “certainly not Z” down the line. Indeed, given the endless parade of imagined horribles one could conjure up for any policy decision, the slippery slope can easily become an argument for doing nothing at all. yet act we do; as George Will once noted, “All politics takes place on a slippery slope.”

That’s never been more true, it seems than now. Allowing gay marriage puts us on the  slippery slope to polygamy and bestiality, opponents say; gun registration would start us sliding into the unconstitutional morass of universal arms confiscation. An NSA whistle-blower, William Binney, said last week that the agency’s surveillance activities pus on a “a slippery slope toward a totalitarian state.” And this week we’re hearing a similar argument that President Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels, however meagerly, has all but doomed us to an Iraq-style debacle. These critics may be right to urge caution, but in their panicked vehemence, they’ve abandone nuance and succumbed to the summoning up worst-case scenarios.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh points out that metaphors like the slippery slope “often start by enriching our vision and end by clouding it.” Decriminalizing marijuana doesn’t have to turn the U.S. into a stoner nation, nor does sending M-16s to Syrian rebels inevitably mean boots on the grond in damascus. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t watch our footing.


The NSA’s Massive Data Center

When Wired published their piece on the massive Utah Data Center (“The Matrix”) more than a year ago, designed to capture and process data from virtually every sort of phone and internet transmission imaginable, I thought the story would explode. It was a fascinating expose’ on a government project with immense implications for privacy. It got some retweets in the technosphere at the time, but never rose to public awareness. That baffled me.

The datacenter had been ten years in the making (so be careful about blaming it all on Obama):

“It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration”

… and was funded by the tens of billions of cash thrown at the NSA in post-9/11 budget awards.

The facility consists of four 25,000 sq ft buildings packed top-to-bottom with servers and data pipes, all kept chill by *60,000 tons of cooling equipment.* They’re not messing around.


Just read it. We can’t say we didn’t know this was coming.

Notes on Jury Duty

Just finished taking part in a jury selection process which lasted four days: 95 potential jurors for a 4-6 week criminal murder trial. The process was amazingly, painfully inefficient in so many ways, but only because it’s FAIR in the extreme. Which is great. For example, at one point, we had to sit in the hallway (most of us on the floor) for 2.5 hours because one person couldn’t hear well and they had to track down assistive listening devices to make sure that *everyone* could hear, no exceptions.

Almost every single potential juror was interviewed about whether they knew anyone in law enforcement, whether they had ever experienced violence, whether they had biases on account of the suspect already being in custody, how they felt about the concept of aiding and abetting, about the paradox of innocent until proven guilty, etc. (each question with an eye toward any bias it might impart in the juror).

It was *amazing* to hear everyones’ stories and opinions. Our country is so diverse, so strange, so wonderful. One person was a politics and law professor. The next has spent his life in the projects, and his own son was murdered (“execution style”) outside his house. One person works at a big box store, the next claimed to have beaten up by cops . The next was a toxicological soil inspector. The next  a lifetime NRA member. The next  a social worker who doesn’t trust the judicial system based on what she’s seen. The next is from a large law enforcement family. The next refuses to look at photos that involve blood, the next had a job incinerating amputated limbs and things at a hospital (so gore means nothing to them). It just went on and on.

And there was so much personal philosophy – some of it clear, some of it muddy. I was fascinated by how skillfully the judge and the attorneys got people to drill in on their fuzzy ideas with laser focus – so many people changed their original opinions after a few minutes of dialog, and came around to admitting that perhaps they weren’t quite as biased as they thought they were after all.

For the first couple of days, I was frustrated, trying to figure out a workable escape plan. By the end of the process, I was all-in, and ready to give up work for a month just for the privilege of participating. I really wanted to jump out of my day job and into this strange world, to have this totally new experience. But, unfortunately, I was one of only eight people who never got questioned (the order is randomly determined, and they had finally chosen the jury just before they got to me). Still, I feel like I learned more about our country in just a few days of listening to real people talk than in a lifetime of watching the news.

I’m a bit bummed not to have been selected, truth be told.

Thoughts on Our Political 50/50

Election night, and Obama has just won his second term. While he trounced it in the electoral vote, the popular vote was nearly dead even. Which, when you think about it, is a really strange thing.

How is it that our nation has become so *perfectly* divided across tens of millions of votes, statistically speaking? Why not 48/52 (in either direction)? Or 40/60?. The perfect numbers split feels like the mathematical settling of a great pendulum, like Forces in Motion no longer in motion, like two bodies of water connected by a channel, finding their natural level. As if the system of checks and balances has counter-checked itself into submission. Like a left brain and a right brain connected by a corpus collosum. Both sides watch the red/blue map and wonder “Who are all these people who don’t see it my way? What drives them, what makes them tick?,” while really we’re just synapses in a global brain that’s finding its natural level. Not that that’s how I want it to be – of course I wish we didn’t have to fight for the environment, wish we didn’t have to fight for gay marriage, wish we didn’t have to fight to have a modicum of civilized health care, wish we didn’t have to fight to keep the middle class from vanishing. But regardless how I wish things were, just think it’s astonishing – almost magical – that we have settled into this perfect mathematical split. Feels like something deep and weird in the statistical nature of the world.

The American People Are Angry

The middle class is rapidly collapsing, and the numbers are staggering. Today, the 400 wealthiest individuals together own more than the bottom 50% of our population combined. That’s 400 people vs. 150 million people. One American family – the heirs to the Walmart fortune – now owns more wealth than the bottom 30% of American families combined. That’s one family vs. 90 million Americans. And people wonder why Occupy Wall St. happened.

Bernie Sanders is amazing. Check out at least the first 10 minutes of this:

The Smart Idiot Effect

Salon on the “smart idiot” effect – why more education amongst conservatives leads to more firmly believing the opposite of the facts. Interestingly, the “smart idiot” effect does not seem to hold amongst liberals, for whom learning more may actually get them to change their views.

Embedded Link

The ugly delusions of the educated conservative
Better-educated Republicans are more likely to doubt global warming and believe Obama’s a Muslim. Here’s why

Google+: View post on Google+

Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory – It’s About Us

This American Life is pretty much always great, but this podcast – covering one man’s journey into the Chinese factories that make our tech products – affected me deeply.

Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory

Heartbreaking and fascinating, seriously worth 45 minutes of your life. Stories of extraordinarily long hours, child labor, and repetitive stress injuries that make our own seem like hangnails in comparison. Stories of people assembling parts as small as human hairs by hand for 16 hours at a stretch, stories of people working with their hands until their bones simply crumble (and they’re out of work for life). Stories of experiments with neurotoxins like hexane being done on unwitting human workers. It goes on and on.

But listen through to the last ten minutes, where the emotional impact, and the anger the story generates,  is sort of qualified by observations of economic realities in China: “Hundreds of thousands of Chinese choose the grimness of factory life over the grimness of the rice paddies.”

I remember when the suicide nets went up around the Foxconn factory, and the simplistic reactions people had to their existence. But some perspective helps – the truth is, China as a whole has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, while those rates are actually lower in factory cities like Chengdu than they are in the rest of the country. And Foxconn is doing the right thing by trying to prevent them – that’s a good thing, not an example of Foxconn simply accepting suicide as a cost of doing business.

But while Apple is  a sexy centerpoint for the story, it’s important to remember that this isn’t really a story about Apple – virtually every single technology product we buy, from DVD players to smartphones to game consoles to blenders, is made under similar conditions.

Actually, this isn’t even a story about the human cost of our enjoyment of technology. Virtually everything on the shelves at Walmart and Target is made in China. The clothes on your back, that car you drive… chances are high those things were made in conditions that are similar or worse than those at Foxconn. It’s not about Apple – it’s about us (ZDNet’s Larry Dignan does a good job widening the scope of the story in this post).

The popularity of this story is an opportunity for the west to reflect on the implications of its addiction to cheap products in general. We’ve grown into  a dangerous symbiotic relationship with China – we can’t shake the allure of cheap products, and they can’t shake the allure of jobs for their citizens. Your cheap jeans create jobs for peasants. And if we were somehow to bring those jobs back to the U.S., we would be throwing those peasants back into the poverty they’ve partially escaped in the past decade. Reality is messy.

Coupled with a recent NY Times piece covering the same topic, it’s been a hard week for Apple, who are scrambling to do spin control. But whether this is an Apple problem or a larger problem of our addiction to cheap goods, Apple could be stepping up as a leader in making a difference here. With the company’s insane bankroll, they could and should be doing more to affect manufacturing conditions.

What about you? Would you be willing to pay 50% more for an iPhone or an HP laptop if it meant you knew it was made in the U.S., under different conditions?

See also: Apple CEO Steve Cook Responds to Allegations

R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens

I got to see Hitchens debate former J-School dean Orville Schell during the height of the Iraq war, and found him a puzzle, as one often does when you agree with exactly half of what someone really smart is saying.

Embedded Link

Christopher Hitchens Is Dead at 62 — Obituary

Mr. Hitchens wrote in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell and trained his sights on targets as various as Henry Kissinger, the British monarchy and Mother Teresa.

Google+: View post on Google+