Really late January 2012 links: Innovation, undergrads, TSA, Updike, the evils of JSTOR, and more

* This is our national identity crisis in a nutshell: Do we want government spending half its money on redistribution and military, or re-dedicating itself to science, infrastructure, and health research?

Do STEM Faculties Want Undegratuates To Study STEM Fields?

* “This might seem a small thing — hey, so what if these foreign jet-setters endure some hassle? — but I think it is emblematic of some cumulatively larger issues. Americans are habituated to griping about our airports and airlines, but I sense that people haven’t internalized how comparatively backward and unpleasant this part of our “modern” infrastructure has become.”

* “The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.

* Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research.

* Rabbit at Rest: The bizarre and misguided critical assault on John Updike’s reputation. I suspect there are a couple of things going on:

1) His fiction isn’t easily categorizable, so you can’t lump him in and say he’s part of group X: hysterical realism, postmodernism, whatever.

2) Many of his novels don’t have much plot, so non-academic readers aren’t likely to love him as much as academic writers.

3) When he began writing, explicit sex was rare, or relatively rare, in fiction; now that it’s common, some of the tension in his earlier books is absent for contemporary readers.

4) You can read Updike and figure out who’s speaking and where a scene is occurring, which isn’t fashionable in some literary circles and hasn’t been for a long time.

5) I suspect most average readers would prefer Robertson Davies to Updike, yet Davies is barely known in the United States or anywhere outside Canada; I think over time Updike will share his fate.

* On programmers:

Formal logical proofs, and therefore programs—formal logical proofs that particular computations are possible, expressed in a formal system called a programming language—are utterly meaningless. To write a computer program you have to come to terms with this, to accept that whatever you might want the program to mean, the machine will blindly follow its meaningless rules and come to some meaningless conclusion. In the test the consistent group showed a pre-acceptance of this fact: they are capable of seeing mathematical calculation problems in terms of rules, and can follow those rules wheresoever they may lead. The inconsistent group, on the other hand, looks for meaning where it is not. The blank group knows that it is looking at meaninglessness, and refuses to deal with it.

The “inconsistent group” sounds like many of the humanities grad students and profs I know.

* “In the high-rise offices of the big publishers, with their crowded bookshelves and resplendent views, the reaction to Amazon’s move is analogous to the screech of a small woodland creature being pursued by a jungle predator.

* The Business Rusch: Readers:

When I started, it wasn’t possible to make a living as a self-published writer. It is now. In fact, weirdly, you can make more money as a self-published writer than you ever could as a midlist writer—and in some cases, more than you could make as a bestselling writer.

Honestly, I find that astounding. This change has happened in just the past few years. A number of readers of this blog have commented on how fun it’s been to watch my attitudes change toward self- and indie-publishing. I’m still educating myself on all of this, and I’m still astonished by some things that I learn.

This might be me, shortly.

* “Students aspiring to technical majors (science/mathematics/engineering) were more likely than other students to report a sibling with an autism spectrum disorder (p = 0.037). Conversely, students interested in the humanities were more likely to report a family member with major depressive disorder (p = 8.8×10−4), bipolar disorder (p = 0.027), or substance abuse problems (p = 1.9×10−6).”

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* A Company Built on a Crisper Gin and Tonic: The quest for a better G&T led Jordan Silbert to start beverage company Q Tonic.

* “If I were a zombie, I’d never eat your brain / I’d just want your heart.”

Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, 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.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

Lessons in Language from the TSA and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Flying these days not only reminds you of how nice it is to stay home but also offers lessons in euphemism. Unnaturally chirpy voices order you to “report suspicious behavior.” Like what? I have no idea, unless it means, say, someone screaming “Allahu Akbar” as they press the detonator or someone else claiming that Fox News is genuinely “fair and balanced.” But if you’re a verbally aware type, you can also learn some things, as I did when I went through security. At the airport checkpoints, security consists of backscatter radiation machines that can take naked pictures of you and are of somewhat dubious safety value. Instead of using them, you can elect have a TSA person fondle you in lieu of going through the machine:

Me: “I’ll opt for the molestation.”
TSA person, in surprisingly good humor: “Molestation? We don’t have any of that here.”
Me: “Well, I don’t want to go through the backscatter machine.”
TSA person: “You can opt out. Male opt-out!”

A couple minutes later:

TSA cop (I think he had a gun): “I have to explain the rules. I am going to touch you—”
Me, spreading my arms: “Yeah, I’ve heard them before. Go to town.”

A minute later:

TSA cop: “I’m going to use the back of my hand to access sensitive areas.”
Me: “I think ‘genitals’ is the commonly used word.”
TSA cop: Laughs. “We have to say it.”
Me: “Have you ever read George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language?’ ” (Note: there was no hyperlink in the actual conversations.)
TSA cop: “No.”
Me: “Woah. I usually have to pay for experiences like this. Anyway, I assign it to my freshmen every semester, and it’s about how controlling language allows one to control political beliefs and actions.”
TSA cop: “Sounds interesting.”

In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell argues that language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.” He says thought and the language used to express thought are intertwined; thus, 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.” Fortunately, he also says “The point is that the process is reversible.” But reversing the process requires that one make some effort to describe the activities involved in language that actually reflects them.

Given that the only way to fly these days is via the naked picture radiation machine or the TSA officer molestation, I’d choose the latter, even if the word I choose is too extreme for the activity. But so too is “opt out” too euphemistic for what the TSA agent does to you. Orwell said in 1946 that “The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.” Modern advertising and government is like that only more so. “Opt out” is reassuringly vague if inaccurate. That’s why TSA uses the term in lieu of something that incorporates the vaguely sexual overtone of what they’re doing.

In the meantime, pilots’ unions have gotten backscatter exemptions and EPIC is suing to learn more about the backscatter machines’ radiation risks (no word on their dignity risks). It’s apparently impossible to get technical specs for the machines so physicists and engineers can figure out what precisely they do and whether they’re really safe (I have more technical knowledge than a goldfish and less than a electrical engineering undergrad, so I’m a bad person for this task). But if I were designing the TSA’s training curriculum, I’d be tempted to use “Politics and the English Language” to explain why TSA employees need to use the language they do: to ensure that people think they’re free, when they should actually be asking their government why security theater persists.

Experts, amateurs, taste, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression — Amity Shlaes, and July links

* The Wall Street Journal’s Neal Templin argues that “If It’s Not by Tolstoy, Hold On to Your Rubles.” I argue that he’s failing to take into account opportunity costs: if you spend enough time and money (see: prices, gas) going back and forth to the library, or you regularly trade books with friends, the library isn’t as advantageous. On the other hand, you don’t have to move all those books you acquire, which is a problem that’s grown in my mind since I’m now dealing with it.

* Briefly noted: Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression gives a revisionist history of 1920 – 1945, focusing on the damage Roosevelt and other government leaders did to the economy.

Still, the conventional response is generally along the lines of: 1) Roosevelt had to do something that at least had the appearance of action, lest the country fall to fascism or communism; 2) economists lacked the statistical tools of today and hence didn’t understand the nature of what they fought; and, 3),

Tariffs and protectionism still take their deserved beating, however, and modern politicians might want to note that. Those opposed to NAFTA should remember that trade in both goods and ideas are beneficial to both parties. Though reading The Forgotten Man brings one into a different world, but ceaseless pandering from leaders and the refusal to acknowledge hard trade-offs almost certainly worsened the problems faced by the United States and world. Some things don’t change much.

* Seriously:

Propped up by a culture of fear, TSA has become a bureaucracy with too much power and little accountability. Where will the lunacy stop?

A question I’ve long asked myself. Those of you familiar with long, questionably trial scenes—as in Kafka, The Name of the Rose, Yalo, and others—are also by association familiar with airline security.

(And this isn’t a new observation—I wrote here:

That the TSA is denying the ability to fly to people without papers is infuriating. Have they not read the innumerable books about dystopias (1984, Brave New World, We…) and history/society (Foucault) on the subject of state surveillance? Evidently not. Slashdot commenters are unusually articulate about the issue. See my thoughts on its relation to reading here.)

* Programmers should play Go. So should writers, and for similar reasons.


EDIT: The original two links at the top of this list are now their own post, called Problems of Perception.

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