Best things I’ve read recently (06/12/17)

The tough situations at work edition featuring harassment, emotional labour and when tattoos become a matter of life-and-death.

Sexual harassment: You too? by Eduardo Reyes (Law Gazette)

“In resigning as secretary of state for defence, Sir Michael Fallon observed that what might have been acceptable 10 or 15 years ago is clearly not acceptable now. Or did he mean 110 or 115 years ago –when Irish nationalist Constance Markievicz grabbed and held aloft the wandering hand of the older man sat beside her at dinner. ‘Just look what I have found on my lap!’ she declared.”

Politeness isn’t enough; we now demand friendliness. And it’s destroying authenticity by Olivia Goldhill (Quartz)

“It can sound miserly to complain about being friendly, but the implications can be quite harmful—especially for those who are experiencing strong negative emotions. Recently, when I had a major physical trauma and significant psychological fallout, I became increasingly aware of and distressed by the insistence on happiness. It felt profoundly wrong to buy food in between hospital visits, say, and be told to have a great day. Other demands for gregariousness were more relenting. In an Uber from my therapy session, for example, the driver repeatedly tried to make pleasant conversation. This was a time when I could barely talk to my closest family, and I was simply incapable of making chitchat with a stranger.”

Unconscious Patient With ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ Tattoo Causes Ethical Conundrum at Hospital by George Dvorsky (Gizmodo)

“Typically, DNRs are formal, notarized documents that a patient gives to their doctor and family members. Tattoos, needless to say, are a highly unorthodox—but arguably direct—means of conveying one’s end-of-life wishes. That said, this patient’s tattoo presented some undeniable complications for the hospital staff. Is a tattoo a legal document? Was it a regretful thing the patient did while he was drunk or high? Did he get the tattoo, but later change his opinion? On this last point, a prior case does exist in which a patient’s DNR tattoo did not reflect their wishes (as the authors wrote in this 2012 report: “…he did not think anyone would take his tattoo seriously…”).”

Tweet of the week (2):

Amusing video of the week:

HT: Nerdist

Cute video of the week:

HT: Also Nerdist

Podcast of the week:

Alphachat’s three part epic on the sociologist Albert O. Hirschman, who seems to be one of that exceptionally interesting generation of European political thinkers, who stared into the abyss of world war and totalitarianism, and came up with profound visions for a humane alternative.

The best things I’ve read recently (27/11/17)

Can China find aliens? Can the DPRK survive South Korean pop culture? Can Dan Brown write for toffee?

Dan Brown is a very bad writer by Matthew Walther (The Week)

“The novel’s most crucial scene is the stunning almost-but-not-quite-too-late moment when, having reached as far as he can into the depths of his (as is repeatedly impressed upon us) encyclopedic memory, it dawns upon Langdon, purportedly a member of the Harvard humanities faculty, that “Blake was not only an artist and illustrator … Blake was a prolific poet.” Bingo? This is like saying that John Carpenter is not only a composer of synthesizer music, he is also the director of such classic films as Halloween and The Thing.”

N Korean defection sheds light on influence of pop culture by Bryan Harris (FT)

‘US president Donald Trump has embarked on a strategy of “maximum pressure”, leaving “all options on the table”. North Korea, however, is demonstrating resilience to comprehensive international sanctions, while the estimated death toll of any military intervention makes the prospect unfeasible.

The alternative path for some watchers of the reclusive nation is to focus on its people — particularly the younger generation, who are increasingly familiar with foreign movies and music.

“This is such a point of leverage that is being underutilised,” says Sokeel Park of Liberty in North Korea, a group that helps scores of North Koreans defect every year.

“There is so much focus now on security problems and harsh rhetoric but ultimately that is playing North Korea’s game — and they are very well-practised. It is the soft underbelly of media, culture and the economy where South Korea, the US and the international community has massive advantages over North Korea.”

Analysts say the first step is to improve the quality and quantity of radio transmissions — a prospect that was boosted when the BBC Korea service began in September.

“We need a more diverse array of tailored media content for North Koreans,” said Mr Park, who contrasted the lacklustre efforts to break North Korea’s information blockade with those made to bring down the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. “We used to be better at this stuff.”’

What happens if China makes first contact? by Ross Anderson (the Atlantic)

“How would he reply to a message from a cosmic civilization? [Famous Chinese Science Fiction writer Liu Cixin] said that he would avoid giving a too-detailed account of human history. “It’s very dark,” he said. “It might make us appear more threatening.” In Blindsight, Peter Watts’s novel of first contact, mere reference to the individual self is enough to get us profiled as an existential threat. I reminded Liu that distant civilizations might be able to detect atomic-bomb flashes in the atmospheres of distant planets, provided they engage in long-term monitoring of life-friendly habitats, as any advanced civilization surely would. The decision about whether to reveal our history might not be ours to make.

Liu told me that first contact would lead to a human conflict, if not a world war. This is a popular trope in science fiction. In last year’s Oscar-nominated film Arrival, the sudden appearance of an extraterrestrial intelligence inspires the formation of apocalyptic cults and nearly triggers a war between world powers anxious to gain an edge in the race to understand the alien’s messages. There is also real-world evidence for Liu’s pessimism: When Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast simulating an alien invasion was replayed in Ecuador in 1949, a riot broke out, resulting in the deaths of six people. “We have fallen into conflicts over things that are much easier to solve,” Liu told me.”

Tweets of the week

Podcast of the week

Analysis examines the premium voters seem to be placing on ‘authenticity’ and why this is problematic. I would perhaps go with a slightly different conclusion than the show does and say that ‘authenticity’ is functionally a synonym for ‘entertaining’ and that this is a terrible criteria by which to choose leaders.

Video of the week

The best things I’ve read recently (12/04/17)

Travel seems to be our theme for this week: theories moving across cultures, people moving across class boundaries, and capital cities…well…just moving.

How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained by Helen Pluckrose (Areo)

‘When I try, unsuccessfully, to squeeze a tennis ball into a wine bottle, I need not try several wine bottles and several tennis balls before, using Mill’s canons of induction, I arrive inductively at the hypothesis that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles’… We are now in a position to turn the tables on [postmodernist claims of cultural relativity] and ask, ‘If I judge that tennis balls do not fit into wine bottles, can you show precisely how it is that my gender, historical and spatial location, class, ethnicity, etc., undermine the objectivity of this judgement?”

If you’re working class, these public spaces won’t welcome you by Kathleen Kerridge (the Guardian)

“The humble school trip has become a source of anxiety and dread for parents across the country. Money is tight, and it’s needed to pay rent and energy bills, and to put food on the table. To have an exuberant child burst through the door with a letter from school – one for a trip to Disneyland Paris, no less – and have to explain that they can’t go is heartbreaking. For children who receive free school meals, the dreaded “paper bag” lunches declare their status to classmates, and the lack of money to spend in gift shops or markets instantly makes a child stand out from the crowd. It’s a sad reality more and more families are having to face. My children don’t even have passports. There’s no point, after all, in paying for a passport that will never be used.”

Why Building New Capital Cities Might Not Be Such a Bad Idea, After All by Mimi Kirk (Citylab)

“It’s unrealistic to expect a new, planned city to become functional right away. It takes at least a century for such a city to become successful. Washington, D.C., for instance, wasn’t a flourishing metropolis for many years. Pierre L’Enfant’s master plan was completed only at the turn of the 20th century—about 100 years after D.C. was founded. It was the same for St. Petersburg, the city I live in. It only became successful after about 100 years, in the early 19th century. The Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin called St. Petersburg a “brilliant mistake” in that it was a miserable city to live and work in for generations—but it persevered, and was critical to the formation of Russian identity.”

Best things I’ve read recently (18/09/15)

Marvel Music, Miserable Kids and Masses of Being Mean to Liam Fox

 

Britain is woefully unprepared for the thing I told it to vote for, says Liam Fox (Newsthump)

“Describing other people as ‘fat and lazy’, Fox criticised Britons for not doing anything like enough to mitigate against the consequences of his actions, and said he expected everyone to pull their finger out to make his fantastic notion work.”

Fat and Lazy by Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling)

“For many of us the fact that some businesses are “fat and lazy” was a key reason to favour remaining within the EU. When Brexiters told us that Brexit would allow us to reach free trade agreements with non-EU nations, our response was a fear that exporters would not quickly or sufficiently step up sales to non-EU countries. You can think of “fat and lazy” as micro-foundations for the gravity models of trade which underpinned the economic case (pdf) for Remain.”

Maybe Stop Asking Kids to Recap Their School Day by Cari Romm (The Science of Us)

“Adolescents may have fun at school with their friends, but they are also in close quarters with scores of peers they didn’t choose,” Damour wrote. “The rough adult equivalent would be to spend nine months of the year in all-day meetings with 20 or more random age-mates — and be expected to bounce home and share enthusiastic updates.”

Tweet of the week:

Video of the week:

Podcast of the week:

This week’s Newsquiz is fantastic or more specifically the spectacular section about Bake Off is. While I have my reservations about Radio 4’s topical comedy, it does have one big thing going for it: Susan Calman.

The best things I’ve read recently (01/05/2015)

A Spell Deferred (the New Republic) by David Hajdu

“[Nina Simone’s] voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.”

Two men dancing in their underwear – Boris and Ken (the Guardian) by Mariana Hyde

“One of the greatest acts of comic sabotage in the entire Tony Blair premiership came during prime minister’s questions, when a Labour backbencher, Tony McWalter, stood up and inquired solicitously: “My right honourable friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the house with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?”

Despite four days’ notice of the question, Blair was more than momentarily silenced. Yet compared to Boris, Tone was John Locke. You’d have more luck finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction than you would a sincerely held view not predicated on Boris’s personal ambition. I shrieked when he attempted to map himself on to the space occupied by Winston Churchill by publishing a book about the man who frequently polls as Britain’s greatest ever leader. It called to mind a great line in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.””

Why I’m too selfish to have children (Vox) by Sung J. Woo

“As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat €— which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax.  She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I’m certain she’d like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist’s dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.”

Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’ (the Atlantic) by James Jeffrey

“Defeating ISIS-as-state is not dependent upon solving Syria as a social, historical, cultural, religious, and governance project, let alone doing the same with Iraq. ISIS feeds on the conflicts in both countries and makes the situation in both worse. But it is possible to defeat ISIS as a “state” and as a military-economic “power”—that is, deal with the truly threatening part— without having to solve the Syrian and Iraqi crises or eliminate ISIS as a set of terrorist cells or source of ideological inspiration. Of course, even if ISIS is destroyed as a state, we would still have the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi disunity, but we have all that now, along with ISIS, which presents its own challenges to the region and the West.”

The best things I’ve read recently (2/4/2016)

Free trade, strong leaders and cancer scams

Trade, Labor, and Politics by Paul Krugman (New York Times)

“What all this means, as I said, is that the Democratic nominee won’t have to engage in saber-rattling over trade. She (yes, it’s still overwhelmingly likely to be Hillary Clinton) will, rightly, express skepticism about future trade deals, but she will be able to address the problems of working families without engaging in irresponsible trash talk about the world trade system. The Republican nominee won’t.

And there’s a lesson here that goes beyond this election. If you’re generally a supporter of open world markets — which you should be, mainly because market access is so important to poor countries — you need to know that whatever they may say, politicians who espouse rigid free-market ideology are not on your side.”

We must stop worshipping the false god of the strong leader by Archie Brown (Aeon)

“Prime ministers and party leaders – unless they are as well grounded as a Stanley Baldwin or an Attlee – acquire an unrealistic belief in the exceptional quality of their judgment and corresponding right to pull rank and determine policy, sustained as these convictions are by their entourage and the ambitions of some of those around them. It is not altogether surprising that leaders should fall prey to arrogance and to seeing themselves as being above the party that elevated them to its leadership. What is more astonishing is that so many of the rest of us should undervalue collegial and collective decision-making. Party leaders and prime ministers were not chosen because they were deemed to have a monopoly of wisdom. It is time we stopped worshipping the false god of the strong individual leader.”

Cancer cons, phoney accidents and fake deaths: meet the internet hoax buster by Rachel Monroe (Guardian)

“The kindness of strangers has helped families pay for treatment, raised money for research and provided support in dark times. But, through her hoax-exposing work, Wright has also seen how the online cancer community can sometimes become vicious. As Wright became increasingly well-known online, she began to receive messages asking her to investigate parents. Many of these emails mentioned one woman in particular, who frequently posted on charity websites requesting video games for her special needs son, Jayden.“I got emails about her, maybe 10 a day, saying look into this, look into that,” Wright recalled.

But the problem was that Jayden’s mother was not a hoaxer. “Their concern wasn’t the legitimacy,” said Wright. Instead, Jayden’s mother’s critics accused her of asking for too many video games, and she had responded to their snide comments by lashing out. Such tantrums are deviant behaviour in a community that is all about gratitude, heart emojis and inspirational quotations about hope.”

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.