Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
A Farm Boy Reflects on Animal Rights – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com

Op-Ed Columnist – A Farm Boy Reflects on Animal Rights – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com

While one of our geese was sitting on her eggs, her gander would go out foraging for food — and if he found some delicacy, he would rush back to give it to his mate. Sometimes I would offer males a dish of corn to fatten them up — but it was impossible, for they would take it all home to their true loves.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I would take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while my Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew that something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I would grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled in my arms.

Very often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk tremulously toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, male or female, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.

[…]

More broadly, the tide of history is moving toward the protection of animal rights, and the brutal conditions in which they are sometimes now raised will eventually be banned. Someday, vegetarianism may even be the norm.

[ Link ]

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Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
Ranger’s Blog: BBC vs National Geographic

The Ranger’s blog and its readers (do read the comments section of the post) illustrate the critical different between an informative and interesting nature program vs what is on offer from National Geographic (or for that matter, Discovery Channel), including video samples. See: The Ranger’s Blog – Post details: Spider vs. Bee… BBC vs. National Geographic.

[ Link ]

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Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
Bush on human rights!

This one is rich:

China accuses US of trying to sabotage Olympics | World news | guardian.co.uk:

The White House said Bush had expressed “concerns” to the group about the human rights situation in China. The president also told the Chinese foreign minister that the Olympics were an “opportunity to demonstrate compassion on human rights and freedom”.

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Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
Is it worth it, let me work it!

Scratch even a leftist in the West and you will often find a hippie-hating individualist/reductionist. Every since Dawkins and Sokal, Summers and Pinker did a number on their brethren, many leftists have been labouring (no pun intended) hard to distance themselves from any feel good, “new age”, hippie type framework or explanations. This has to be a bit embarrassing:

Shankar Vedantam – When Play Becomes Work – washingtonpost.com

Psychologists have long been interested in what happens when people’s internal drives are replaced by external motivations. A host of experiments have shown that when threats and rewards enter the picture, they tend to destroy the inner drives. Paychecks and pink slips might be powerful reasons to get out of bed each day, but they turn out to be surprisingly ineffective — and even counterproductive — in getting people to perform at their best.

[…]

Deci tracked a bunch of college students who were solving puzzles for fun. He divided them into two groups. One group was allowed to keep solving puzzles as before. People in the other were offered a small financial reward for each puzzle they solved.

The psychologist later evaluated the volunteers: He found that people given a financial incentive were now less interested in solving puzzles on their own time. Although these people had earlier been just as eager as those in the other group, offering an external incentive seemed to kill their internal drive.

Rewards and punishments guide the lives of most Americans. Young children are given stars for putting away their toys, kids earn a few bucks for mowing the lawn, and teens are told they will be grounded if they get in trouble. For adults, stock options, raises, demotions and firings become different kinds of carrots and sticks.

Beliefs about the utility of rewards and punishments in motivating human behavior are deeply ingrained, and most people don’t know that more than 100 research studies have shown that motivating people in this manner can have the unintentional effect of undermining their internal drives.

The striking thing about the research, said Roland Benabou, an economist at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, is that it is so starkly at odds with bedrock economic principles.

“A central tenet of economics is that individuals respond to incentives,” Benabou noted in one research study. “For psychologists and sociologists, in contrast, rewards and punishments are often counterproductive, because they undermine intrinsic motivation.”

But wait, there’s more… the killer part, in fact:

But rewards and punishments are not always counterproductive, Benabou said. He drew a distinction between mundane tasks and those that carry meaning for people. In the first case, Benabou argued, rewards and punishments work exactly the way economists predict: They get people to do things.

External rewards and punishments are counterproductive when it comes to activities that are meaningful — tasks that telegraph something about a person’s intellectual abilities, generosity, courage or values.

Killer part because it spells out what any worker knows to be true — rewards and punishments (more often the latter) are employed to get us to do the dirty work of those handing out the rewards and punishments.

[ Link ]

[With apologies to Missy Elliot]

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Jul 31st, 2008 by ravi
A review of Braveheart (the film)

Excerpts:

Braveheart: dancing peasants, gleaming teeth and a cameo from Fabio | Film | guardian.co.uk

Edward I expresses a desire to enforce high taxes on the rich. Apparently, in Gibson’s world, this makes him evil. In case you need even more evidence, on a whim he reinstates ius primae noctis, allowing English nobles to interrupt Scottish weddings and shag the bride. Not only fictional, but profoundly ridiculous.

<…>

After his lady love is murdered by the English, Wallace pretends to surrender. At the last minute, he whips out a concealed nunchaku. Wait, what? Glossing over its implication that medieval Scotland imported arms from China, Wallace’s rebellion gathers pace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which the film has inexplicably set in a field. Rather than, you know, on a bridge. For pity’s sake. The clue’s in the name.

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Jul 28th, 2008 by ravi
Carl Remick

I wish to write of three deaths (among a few million) that have occurred thus far, this year.

One was the “just folks”, “son of the soil” celebrity journalist Tim Russert, who made a mockery of aggressive interviewing while peddling provincial platitudes and gossip on CIA operatives, or providing a forum for dissemination of lies in aid of waging wars (Cathie Martin, aide to Cheney: “I suggested we put the vice president on Meet the Press, which was a tactic we often used. It’s our best format.”). His departure went down as a “national tragedy”.

The second is University of Virginia professor Randy Pausch who died of pancreatic cancer three days ago. Prof. Pausch became a celebrity after his “Last Lecture” speech at Carnegie Mellon University, in which he offered various inspirational words and acts, in the face of his imminent death.

Both these men were listed by Time (in different years) as one of the World’s Top-100 Most Influential People. Pausch appeared on Oprah, had scholarships and bridges named after him, and even had his “childhood dream” fulfilled through an invitation from the Pittsburgh Steelers to practice with them.

My friend and comrade, Carl Remick, died about six months ago. I have made three attempts to write something about it, but stopped on each occasion. Anything I write about such a masterful wordsmith as he was, would be an embarrassment to his memory. It would have been best if Carl had supplied us his own eulogy before departure, but his irreverent and iconoclastic nature would have yielded anything but the endearing and saccharine prose that is expected on such occasions.

Carl wasn’t on any Influential People list, as no “man of the left” (as he called himself on his Amazon Profile) has a chance to influence events in a rhetorical world that has reached its zenith in the person of Barack Obama. Nor did his simple last wish (or rather dream) of making it to Italy in his lifetime come to fruition. Carl did not spend the last few months of his life making money on pulp biography/non-fiction or the Oprah Winfrey show basking in the adulation of cheering fans. As a man of the left, he instead spent those months fighting the insurance companies when not beset by anxiety regarding his finances and future.

WikiQuote offers a few maxims from Randy Pausch (no disprespect to whom is intended in this post) that, to some extent, account for his accidental celebrity:

  • Remember brick walls let us show our dedication. They are there to separate us from the people who don’t really want to acheive their childhood dreams.
  • Show gratitude.
  • Don’t complain; just work harder.
  • Be good at something. It makes you valuable.
  • Junior faculty members used to come up to me and say. “Wow, you got tenure early; what’s your secret?” I said, “It’s pretty simple, call me any Friday night in my office at 10 o’clock and I’ll tell you.

An almost perfect cocktail of Christian and capitalistic values! Carl had something to say on this matter too as in this post from the Marxmail list, with an introductory comment by Louis Proyect who runs the list:

(This afternoon I forwarded an item that Carl Remick had posted to lbo-talk. After doing some googling, I found a more exemplary item–a letter written to the Guardian on March 24, 2003 in response to a Madeleine Bunting article on balancing work and non-work lives. It is Carl at his best.)

Dear Ms Bunting,

Having a (rare!) idle moment, I would like to commend you on your continuing concern with the importance of achieving a work-life balance.

I believe the cult-like devotion to work that swallows whole lives these days is yet another nasty idea of US origin – and I say that as an American.

I am 53 and have spent my most of my working life, as a corporate writer, noting a steady decline in the quality of working conditions. Any number of things have combined to make the workplace the hellish place it is now.

a) The shift from a manufacturing to a service economy

b) The leveraged buy-outs of the 1980s and “outsourcing” of the 1990s that created “lean, mean” companies, permanently wiping out tiers of middle management and corporate staff

c) The globalisation of commerce and advent of the PC/internet/cell phone that cleared the way for 24/7 feats of Stakhanovite excess

d) Above all, the rise of the “winner-take-all” society, where CEOs and suchlike are seen as entitled to live large at everyone else’s expense.

What amazes and depresses me is how readily over the years my colleagues have acceded to their exploitation. […] Yet, I will admit that – as seems to be the point of your investigations – it is impossible to escape the gravitational pull of today’s work-maddened society, even for someone as inclined toward dolce far niente as I am:

a) Working for a PR firm in New York during the 1990s, I never for a moment imagined I was participating in the creation of a “New Economy”; even at the time the decade seemed no more than a steady succession of harebrained schemes. Nevertheless, I was up at all hours with everyone else, attending to urgent-urgent-urgent (but always nonsensical) document revisions. Of course, a PR firm, like a law firm, imposes its own special tyranny: billable hours. Billing by
the hour – around as much of the clock as inhumanely possible – makes coffee machines as key to office productivity as computer printers.

b) That, however, was the 90s. Now I’m my own boss – meaning: I got chucked out of my job. I foolishly assumed that staying with one employer for 12 years would give me some protection from the inevitable major downturn, but quite the contrary. I was one of the first laid off at my firm, right at the start of the US recession in April 2001. Ever since, what with endless futile chases after a fulltime job combined with fitful periods of freelance work – again, often at crazy hours – I find have less control over my time than ever.

But enough lamentation about the woeful state of the States. May I end simply by wishing you the best with your project. I regret to say that the UK – via the awful example set by Margaret Thatcher in everything – made its own contribution to the decayed condition of American society today; nevertheless, the UK has something the US entirely lacks – a leftist political tradition that amounts to something – that, just possibly, could prove inspirational to the US
in the correct way. I earnestly hope you do find ways to turn Workcamp UK into a more gemutlich place. Here in the US there’s a lot riding on your success.

I write above that Carl was my friend and comrade. I like to believe that Carl was my friend, even though I have never met him in person and our correspondence has not been significant. But my comrade he certainly was in his instinctive support for and understanding of the rightful underdog, an attitude I only aspire to: on mailing lists we have both been members of, we found ourselves arguing on the same side, such as against the majority, and in support of a steadfast critic of US-based criticism of Iran. He was also my comrade in that we stood jointly accused (an honour for me!) on that very list of being against “the great”:

This is a basic conflict of value and I don’t think there is a rational resolution of it. Carl, Ravi, many leftists, really do hate, distrust, despise talent, and if they weren’t nice people they’d urge on use the advice of the counselor in the proverb who showed his prince how to handle the menace of the great by taking him to a wheat field and cutting down to the common level any stalk that rose above the average height.

(The person who wrote this is an intelligent and committed leftist and it would be unfair on the reader’s part to generalise about his overall attitude from this snippet from a heated dialogue.)

This accusation is not new to me and is frequently hurled at me by Randian right-wingers who delusionally identify themselves among the winners! Well, so be it! Carl was my comrade in that neither of us are winners, and now he is gone. But it is only a confusion of talent with success that would blind anyone to Carl’s value — he was great without needing to be above average.

I wrote to him privately, in response to his post detailing his struggle with cancer (and his fear that his post would be found to be “whining”):

I responded on list, but also wanted to write to you off-list to say: your post was anything but “whining” — I abhor that right-wing term, designed to make us not engage in a collective manner to discuss, share and perhaps even solve our difficulties. Your posts to LBO are witty, intelligent and full of knowledge that defies the modern obsession with specialisation.

To which he responded:

Many thanks, Ravi. Well, since having cancer seems to be all the rage right now, I didn’t want to come across as still another cancer “survivor” inflicting his/her tale of heroic woe on the defenseless public. I was particularly reluctant to divulge my backstory, if you will, on a political listserv, since I’d like my postings to be judged on their own merits, without giving readers any possible cause to think, “Uh-oh, this is that cancer guy — better go easy on him even if he is a horse’s ass.”

BTW, I decided years ago that I would finesse the modern obsession with specialization by specializing in generalization. This, too, proved to be a poor decision :)

Carl was indeed a splendid generalist, a man of letters if you will permit the term, and his poor decisions left us richer!

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Jul 28th, 2008 by ravi
The unbearable weight of facts

The New York Times, the paper of record, is shocked, just shocked. They just discovered that the US military has been censoring war photography and un”embedding” journalists who do not follow their guidelines.

Picturing Casualties – The New York Times

Chris Hondros of Getty Images was with an army unit in Tal Afar on January 18, 2005, when its soldiers killed the parents of this blood-spattered girl at a checkpoint


It is, to them, a “complex matter”:

It is a complex issue, with competing claims often difficult to weigh in an age of instant communication around the globe via the Internet, in which such images can add to the immediate grief of families and the anger of comrades still in the field.

You might find that confusing, but that’s only because you did not know that newspapers are in the business of “weigh[ing] competing claims”, not reporting facts.

[ Link ]

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Jul 28th, 2008 by ravi
OMG, Obama shook hands with a Bobby or two!

We are used to rot on this side of the pond, where the choice is between an outright organ of a political party or celebrity claptrap that passes for journalism. But the updated version of “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog“, it seems, is that on a blog nobody knows you are a doggone fool. Here is some commentary on Obama’s visit to the UK from the mighty BBC’s website:

BBC NEWS | The Reporters | Justin Webb

He shook hands with the policemen outside 10 Downing Street!
This is presidential? No way Ronald Reagan would have done it. Was it a nicely Democratic touch or a nervy moment for a man so exhausted that he would have shaken hands with anyone who presented him or herself?

Marvellous! Splendid commentary!

[ Link ]

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Jul 22nd, 2008 by ravi
Globalisation bites globally

St. Louis Journal – Anger and Dismay at the Sale of a City Treasure – NYTimes.com

InBev has pledged not to shut down any of Anheuser-Busch’s 12 breweries in the United States. But many here still feel here as if a treasure is endangered.

As Opal Henderson, a 78-year-old auto salvage yard owner, put it, “Why can’t those foreigners just stay at home and leave us what we have?”

[ Link ]

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Jul 21st, 2008 by ravi
Seed: Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers

Seed: Noam Chomsky + Robert Trivers

Robert Trivers: So you’re talking about self-deception in at least two contexts. One is intellectuals who, in a sense, go through a process of education which results in a self-deceived organism who is really working to serve the interests of the privileged few without necessarily being conscious of it at all.
The other thing is these massive industries of persuasion and deception, which, one can conceptualize, are also inducing a form of either ignorance or self-deception in listeners, where they come to believe that they know the truth when in fact they’re just being manipulated.

Click link for video and full conversation.

[ Link ]

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