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Mob behavior and threats to free speech described and discussed by Nicholas Christakis

I recommend this excellent discussion by Nicholas Christakis on the topics of mob behavior, moral panics, and current threats to free speech. Illiberal behavior is destroying our ability to talk with each other, notably on the places where we would most expect vigorous exchanges of ideas: college campuses. Christakis is a sociologist and physician who conducts research in the area of biosocial science, investigating the biological predicates and consequences of social phenomena. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University. Sam Harris presents this discussion on his Waking Up podcast.

At the tail end of the podcast, Christakis and Harris mention the work of Greg Lukianoff, President of FIRE, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

FIRE has achieved long successful string of legal victories through its Speech Litigation Project. 

October 11, 2017 | By | Reply More

What have American soldiers been dying for in the Middle East?

At The Nation, Danny Sjursen, examining the track record for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East for the past couple of decades, asks whether the U.S. is a force for good, as U.S. politicians commonly assert.  There is no happy answer forthcoming:

If ever you have the urge to do just that, ask yourself the following question: Would I be able to confidently explain to someone’s mother what (besides his mates) her child actually died for?

What would you tell her? That he (or she) died to ensure Saudi hegemony in the Persian Gulf, or to facilitate the rise of ISIS, or an eternal Guantanamo, or the spread of terror groups, or the creation of yet more refugees for us to fear, or the further bombing of Yemen to ensure a famine of epic proportions?

Maybe you could do that, but I couldn’t and can’t. Not anymore, anyway. There have already been too many mothers, too many widows, for whom those explanations couldn’t be lamer. And so many dead—American, Afghan, Iraqi, and all the rest—that eventually I find myself sitting on a bar stool staring at the six names on those bracelets of mine, the wreckage of two wars reflecting back at me, knowing I’ll never be able to articulate a coherent explanation for their loved ones, should I ever have the courage to try.

September 26, 2017 | By | Reply More

This post is about you and the singular they.

“Bob is impressive because they is an excellent doctor.” If that ruffles your feathers, watch this brief presentation by John E. McIntyre.

And while you are at it, check out this fascinating Khan Academy video detailing the history of “you.”

September 26, 2017 | By | Reply More

Optimism: A secret weapon for You.

I am enjoying many of the blog posts of Mr. Money Mustache. Today I read his paean to optimism, titled: “The Practical Benefits of Outrageous Optimism.” He describes optimism as a “secret weapon” that you can and should employ every day. He is not channelling Pollyanna, but making his argument based on solid science.

But what good is fictional asset like an Optimism Gun when we’re trying to accomplish things here in the real world? The answer is a Hell of a lot of good, because in this world full of humans, almost all of our “reality” is created in our own heads . . . There are several psychological principles at work that make all this work on a practical level. What follows are excerpts of the reasons you need to be optimistic, but I would optimistically recommend that you would enjoy his entire post.

  • Humans are automatically drawn to Leaders: . . . If you dare to express optimism about anything, you’re stepping onto a little soapbox, and it gets attention.
    People want it to be true: If you’ve become a small-time leader and you deliver the Good Word, people will naturally want to keep listening, because you help them feel good about things too. 
  • Optimism tricks you into trying more things. . . .
  • You are forced not to focus on things you can’t control: One of the most useful lessons of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is that you never worry about stuff you cannot control. You just work on the things you can. . . .
  • Acknowledge and Bow Down to the Placebo Effect: When it comes to health and well-being, the mind controls the body way more than rational people like to admit. . . .
  • I enjoy hacking this fact to control my own health. I have a permanent belief that I am unusually healthy, and that this condition will persist forever. [O]ptimism is limiting the release of the human stress hormone Cortisol, which tends to destroy health. The less you worry about health, the healthier you become.
  • Optimism is rare, and deadly when combined with competence: If you’re a smart guy or gal at your workplace, the other smart people are expecting you to be pessimistic, just like them. . . . You can slip in [optimistic] ideas . . .Your coworkers will be fooled into thinking that they really can do those things, which they wouldn’t have otherwise tried.
September 19, 2017 | By | Reply More

Sam Harris comments on Black Lives Matters

I’m am largely in agreement with Sam Harris on these issues.

There are more than a few bad cops out there, and lots of good cops. There are some totally innocent people who are being victimized by the bad cops.  There are also some people who are unwisely pushing back at cops on the street, in situations where emotions are peaking and there is a gun “on the table.”  And there are many people out there over-generalizing and sanitizing (one way or the other) an ever growing disparate collection of street encounters between cops and African-American, where the African Americans end up getting shot by cops.

September 16, 2017 | By | 2 Replies More
New Harvard Business School Study: U.S. Federal Government Is Increasingly Good at Being Bad

New Harvard Business School Study: U.S. Federal Government Is Increasingly Good at Being Bad

Here’s how a new Harvard Business School study sums up our Federal Government:

America’s political system was long the envy of the world. It advanced the public interest and gave rise to a grand history of policy innovations that fostered both economic and social progress. Today, however, our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address. . . In areas such as public education, health and wellness, personal safety, water and sanitation, environmental quality, and tolerance and inclusion, among others, U.S. progress has stalled or gone in reverse. In these areas, where America was often a pioneer and leader, the U.S. has fallen well down the list compared to other advanced countries.

The study concluded that the political system is not actually failing. It is working, but its function is different than the one taught in high school textbooks:

Most people think of politics as its own unique public institution governed by impartial laws dating back to the founders. Not so. Politics is, in fact, an industry—most of whose key players are private, gain-seeking organizations. The industry competes, just like other industries, to grow and accumulate resources and
influence for itself. The key players work to advance their self-interests, not necessarily the public interest. It’s important to recognize that much of what constitutes today’s political system has no basis in the Constitution.
As our system evolved, the parties—and a larger political industrial complex that surrounds them—established and optimized a set of rules and practices that enhanced their power and diminished our democracy.

The title to the study is: “WHY COMPETITION IN THE POLITICS INDUSTRY IS FAILING AMERICA Here is the full study.

September 15, 2017 | By | Reply More

Mr. Money Mustache: Dirty is the New Clean

I’m intrigued by the writings of Mr. Money Mustache. There are a lot of benefits to buying only what you really need and reveling in so many things in life that are free or nearly so. In this post, he points out the price many people pay for obsessing about cleanliness:

Dirty is the New Clean – Thus we have our counter-cultural lesson for the day. Rather than seeking to avoid germs and maximize your cleanliness, it is much more profitable to seek out Training for your Immune System, and optimize your life so that things get cleaned the minimum amount that allows you to maintain a functional and prosperous household. The reward is thousands of dollars and countless hours saved, and if you’re lucky, dozens of illnesses prevented.

By all means, keep things happily minimalist, decluttered, and organized – a simplified physical environment is good for the mind. You can also wash your hands with normal soap after a big day out and cook your food properly. But in your own home where no babies are delivered and no surgeries performed, you can safely let yourself off the hook when it comes to wiping, sterilizing, washing, drying, and polishing.

September 14, 2017 | By | Reply More

Worst movie of all time?

For many years, I was under the impression that the 1959 film, “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” was the worst movie of all time.  It is very good at being bad:

But I was just introduced to “Turkish Star Wars,” a move with Spanish subtitles. I don’t know anything about whether this movie ever hit the big screen anywhere, but it is quite entertaining for its many failures. It’s difficult to think of any aspect of film-making that this movie doesn’t fail at.  From Wikipedia:

Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (The Man Who Saved the World) is a 1982 Turkish science fantasy adventure film also known as Turkish Star Warsbecause of its notorious use of unauthorized footage from Star Wars and other movies worked into the film.

Upon its initial release, the film was panned by critics for its incoherent storyline, poor performances, and use of stock footage and music from other films.

Despite this (or possibly due to this), the film has gained a significant cult following over the years. Louis Proyect of Rec Arts Movie Reviews called the film “classic midnight movie fun.”[2] Phil Hall of Film Threat gave the film a perfect 5 stars, calling it “jaw-droppingly insane … a film that makes criticism moot.”

Here is “Turkish Star Wars” in its entirety:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4441&v=arpH88Mx3z4

September 9, 2017 | By | 2 Replies More

Getting upset about the right things.

Here’s a post by Darrell Lackey, a pastor challenging Christians to get save their energy and frustration for the right kinds of things. He begins the post with this statement that Tony Campolo has been known to use when addressing Christian audiences:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact I just said “shit” than you are that 30,000 kids died last night.

There is some good food for thought for all of us in this post, whether or not we are religious (I am not).  For example, many of us often get much more upset about the minor irritations of our own local lives than the enormous suffering and stark injustices over the next hill or the next continent. For instance, our own country has been bombing many countries in the Middle East for many years.  We’ve been bombing Afghanistan since 2001, and according to reliable sources, we have been killing many innocent civilians in a “war” regarding which we are utterly unable to articulate any meaningful objective or metric of success. Therefore, that “war” goes on, largely unchallenged and unnoticed, our news media almost never mentioning that we are even at war.  Out of sight, out of mind for most of us.

If we want to be morally cohesive, we need to use unceasing effort to make certain we are focused on the things that matter.  That is often not easy to do.  Trying to stay focused on important things in a sustained way wears us down.  It’s not easy to be moral.  It’s much easier to complain about that the microwave burned the popcorn.

To live moral lives, we need to stay focused on important things, and focus is another word for attention, a psychological resource that humans have in short supply.  Attention is like a spotlight.  When we look at a thing, we often exclude attending to most other things.  that’s how we are wired; we are almost the opposite of omniscient, even though we want to believe that we are generally aware of most things that are important.

Because attention is so limited, our attentional decisions and habits (maybe we should call this our “attentional hygiene”) gives us great power to define our “world.”  Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, we are capable of manipulating what we pay attention to, and whatever we choose to ignore simply doesn’t exist for us; if we are not paying  attention to something, it holds no moral sway over us because our attentional choices turn it into nothing at all. Most of us aren’t at all bothered by world starvation most of the time because  we are not thinking about that horrific problem.  Further, human animals are capable of not paying attention to things that are right in front of us.  This is especially true when we are emotionally motivated to not see.   See no evil and hear no evil functionally means that there is no evil.

I have long been fascinated by this confluence of attention and morality and, in fact wrote a detailed paper on it, drawing from many domains of cognitive science:  Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention.”  Feel free to take a look, if you find this general topic compelling.

September 2, 2017 | By | Reply More