Apr, 2013

California’s Silicon Valley is a microcosm of America’s new extremes of wealth and poverty. Business is better than it’s been in a decade. Facebook, Google and Apple have minted hundreds of new tech millionaires. But not far away, the homeless are building tent cities along a creek in the city of San Jose. Homelessness rose 20 percent in the past two years, food stamp participation is at a 10-year high, and the average income for Hispanics, who make up a quarter of the population, fell to a new low of about $19,000 a year — in a place where the average rent is $2000 a month.

[ORIGINAL: By Moyers & Company, via UpWorthy]

Apr, 2013

Excerpts from Boston Review’s interview with Larissa MacFarquhar:

David Johnson: How did you become interested in extreme cases of moral virtue?

Larissa MacFarquhar: I’ve been interested in them for a long time, but one of the things I read that got me thinking in a more systematic way was the philosopher Susan Wolf’s essay “Moral Saints.” [PDF] She argues that our conceptions of perfect moral virtue (what she calls saintliness) and of a well-lived life are irreconcileable, so one of them has to go. She is basically anti-saint—she concludes that it’s our view of morality that has to go. I tend towards the other conclusion, but her essay was very useful in framing the question. It seemed to me, though, that you couldn’t think about the problem only in the abstract. If you want to consider the cost of making certain ethical decisions, you have to see how they play out in actual lives. So that’s why I decided to write about people who have a very demanding sense of moral duty and live their lives accordingly.


DJ: So are you writing a defense of moral saints?

LM: More or less, yes. And part of the book will be a history of a kind of counter-morality that opposes what I’m calling saintliness. (Obviously that term has religious connotations, but I don’t intend those; I mean extreme morality.) I find the people I’m writing about extremely admirable, and I’m puzzled by the suspicion they attract. When I started working on this project I was simply interested in what a life lived according to certain kinds of moral strictures looked like. But when I wrote about people who had donated one of their kidneys to a stranger, I was astonished and fascinated to hear about how much hostility they had encountered, and I wanted to think about what was behind that.

DJ: Outsiders were suspicious.

LM: They were. But in all sorts of different ways. Some thought people who appeared to be extremely ethical must be somehow cheating—that they couldn’t actually be doing all those good things. Others believed they were doing those things, but they found that so weird that they thought they must have some kind of mental illness—that they must lack the ordinary component of desires or feelings, or that there was something robotic about them.


DJ: Susan Wolf is certainly right that we find moral saints problematic. But what are we getting wrong when we view them skeptically?

LM: If the suspicion is hypocrisy, I think we underestimate the sort of people I’m writing about—it’s entirely possible to live an extremely ethical life without being hypocritical. But besides that, I think people overvalue certain kinds of sins. For instance, many people have said to me, when they hear who I’m writing about, ‘Well, don’t they just act morally to make themselves feel better? Don’t they get all self-righteous and overly proud of themselves?’ I think that pride and self-righteousness are far less important than most people seem to think they are. I think that if you’re doing something that’s hard to do and good to do, and that makes you feel proud, I just don’t see why that’s so terrible. One kidney donor told me that his donation made him feel better about himself—that it was one really good thing he’d done in his life, which he had otherwise made a pretty complete mess of. Some psychologists think you shouldn’t donate in order to feel better about yourself, but it strikes me as an excellent reason!

What’s more, I think what is criticized as self-righteousness or preachiness is often the result of a desire to further whatever cause the person is engaged in. If a person held back from talking about his cause out of a desire to appear less self righteous, that would be its own problem—and a much more serious one. The people I’m going to talk about tonight encounter this problem all the time and they wrestle with it.


DJ: One thing I find is that for people not brought up in religious households, religion seems bizarre. They can’t understand how anybody could even care about the problems that religious people focus on. How have you approached religious figures that you’ve written about? How have you grappled with the fact that you haven’t had the same internal tensions or experiences that they’ve had?

LM: The people I’m writing about are very unlike me in a whole range of ways, so that’s just one of them. I deal with it the same way I would deal with anything else, which is to listen to what they say and try to ask the right questions. I do ask what difference God makes to their ethical beliefs, but it’s as hard for them to imagine a world without faith as it is for me to imagine a world with it.

Kimberley Brown-Whale, a Methodist minister whom I wrote about in my kidney donor piece, described a difference between religious people such as herself and secular people that was very enlightening. She said that if you believe in God, you believe in grace, and so you don’t think it’s up to you to fix the world—that’s God’s business. Your job is to do your duty as best you can, but there’s never this sense that if I don’t do it, there will be disaster. God is in control, and God’s love will see the world through. Whereas for secular people, it’s all up to us. We’re alone here. That’s why I think that, for secular people, there can be an additional layer of urgency and despair.

I also think that, within many religious traditions, there is a much more of an acceptance of suffering as a part of life and not necessarily always a terrible thing, because it can help you become a fuller person. Whereas, at least in my limited experience, secular utilitarians hate suffering. They see nothing good in it, they want to eliminate it, and they see themselves as responsible for doing so.

Link to the full interview at Boston Review. [via Leiter Reports]

Apr, 2013

This April marks Gmail’s 9th birthday, writes Zohair Hyder on The Official Gmail blog, as he reminisces about how much things have changed. Apparently, Gmail was inspired by a user complaint about existing email services’ lack of a search function and their poor storage limits. The infographic below delves further into various milestones in Gmail’s history. Following the chart caused me recall the long relationship I’ve had with Google’s webmail service.

I joined Gmail for the first time right around the same time I joined MySpace (the first MySpace…when it was like brand new and stuff). It was a different time back then. You would have found me deep into the music scene, floating mp3s off only to have them bounce back because the recipients mailbox was full or it just couldn’t handle the dopeness that landed in its inbox.

One of my earliest Gmail accounts has since become a junk-mail depository that I recently cleaned up and made pretty again. I had (and still have) a Gmail account for every separate thing. But many of my past accounts have vanished into the ether. So many, I don’t even know the exact count. I’ve forgotten what most of them even are.

Once a Thunderbird power user, Mozilla’s email client allowed me to bundle all my Gmail accounts into one app for easier viewing. But I had moved away from that method long before Mozilla dropped support for the Thunderbird because I began to migrate away from the hassle of keeping track of multiple accounts and merged them all into a single account. But now, Gmail’s native “Multiple Sign-in” serves a similar function, which actually suits me better since I can keep the luxury of having multiple accounts while simply linking them all together, remaining logged in to each, but without needing to prune all accounts all the time. Only specific accounts when I need to.

Gmail hasn’t been perfect but it has always been ahead of the competition.

Happy Birthday Gmail!

Apr, 2013

I’ve been aware of Bitcoin for a while but never completely understood what it was. In BITCOIN EXPLAINED, director and animator Duncan Elms along with writer Marc Fennell (whom also provides the voice over) brilliantly illustrates what Bitcoin is (a decentralized digital currency), how it works, and how it’s used.

This was a personal project by Duncan Helms. Jump over to the vimeo page for Bitcoin Explained if you would like to make a Bitcoin donation for the video.


Apr, 2013

Hyeonseo Lee managed to escape North Korea, TWICE. She went back a second time to save her family. Here’s the tragic and amazing story of how she accomplished it.

  • At 0:50, she starts in on what happens in North Korea.
  • At 1:16, she talks about a horrific letter from her co-worker’s sister.
  • At 1:50, she talks about something she will never erase from her memory.
  • At 2:47, she shows us an enlightening map.
  • At 4:20, her worst nightmare comes true.
  • At 5:23, she shares a tiny bit of happy news.
  • At 6:22, she moves and faces more challenges.
  • At 6:55, she makes a heartbreaking confession.
  • At 7:12, North Korea decides to threaten her family as vengeance.
  • At 7:35, she explains how people escape.
  • At 8:20, the old “show me your papers” line wields its ugly head.
  • At 9:00, her family is arrested multiple times and held for a month. Then she runs out of bribe money.
  • At 9:45, a hero arrives. And we start tearing up a little.
  • At 10:53, we get a happy ending. And she suggests some ways to actually help.
  • And at 12:00, the audience rewards her bravery and resolve with a standing ovation.

Then you may feel the urge to share this. And you may feel the urge to like her on Facebook, at which point, I’ll totally owe you one. It’s an important story, and everyone should get the opportunity to hear it.

[via UpWorthyORIGINAL: By Hyeonseo Lee on the TED stage.]

Mar, 2013

From Lindy West at Jezebel:

Okay, so maybe you are a man. Maybe you haven’t had the easiest ride in life—maybe you grew up in poverty; you’ve experienced death, neglect, and despair; you hate your job, your car, your body. Maybe somebody (or multiple somebodies) pulverized your heart, or maybe you’ve never even been loved enough to know what a broken heart feels like. Maybe shit started out unfair and became irreparable and you never deserved any of this. Maybe everything looks fine on paper, but you’re just unhappy and you don’t know why. These are human problems and other human beings feel for you very deeply. It is hard to be a human. I am so sorry.


Though it is a seductive scapegoat (I understand why it attracts you), none of these terrible, painful problems in your life were caused by the spectre of “misandry.” You can rest easy about that, I promise! In fact, the most powerful proponent of misandry in modern internet discourse is you — specifically, your dogged insistence that misandry is a genuine, systemic, oppressive force on par with misogyny. This is specious, it hurts women, and it is hurting you. Most feminists don’t hate men, as a group (we hate the system that disproportionately favors men at the expense of women), but — congratulations! — we are starting to hate you. You, the person. Your obsession with misandry has turned misandry into a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I mean, sort of. Hating individual men is not the same as hating all men. But more on that in a minute.) Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Feminism is, in essence, a social justice movement—it wants to take the side of the alienated and the marginalized, and that includes alienated and marginalized men. Please stop turning us against you.

It is nearly impossible to address problems facing women—especially problems in which men are even tangentially culpable—without comments sections devolving into cries of “misandry!” from men and replies of “misandry isn’t real” from women. Feminists are tired of this endless, fruitless turd-pong: hollow “conversation” built on willful miscommunication, bouncing back and forth, back and forth, until both sides throw up their hands and bolt. Maybe you are tired of this too. We seem to be having some very deep misunderstandings on this point, so let’s unpack it. I promise not to yell.

Part One: Why Feminism Has “Fem” in the Name, or, Why Can’t We All Just Be Humanists?

I wish, more than anything, that I could just be a “humanist.” Oh, man, that would be amazing! Because that would mean that we lived in a magical world where all humans were born on equal footing, and maybe I could live in a house shaped like a big mushroom and birds would help me get dressed or something. Humanism is a gorgeous dream, and something to strive for. In fact, it is the exact thing that feminism is striving for right now (and has been working on for decades)! Yay, feminism!

Unfortunately, the reason that “fem” is a part of the word “feminism” is that the world is not, currently, an equal, safe, and just place for women (and other groups as well—in its idealized form, intersectional feminism seeks to correct all those imbalances). To remove the gendered implications of the term is to deny that those imbalances exist, and you can’t make problems disappear just by changing “feminism” to “humanism” and declaring the world healed. That won’t work.

Think of it like this. Imagine you’re reading a Dr. Seuss book about a bunch of beasts living on an island. There are two kinds of beasts: Fleetches and Flootches. (Stick with me here! I love you!) Though the two are functionally identical in terms of intellect and general competence, Fleetches are in charge of pretty much everything. They hold the majority of political positions, they make the most money (beast-bucks!), they dominate the beast media, they enact all kinds of laws infringing on the bodily autonomy of Flootches. Individually, most of them are perfectly nice beasts, but collectively they benefit comfortably from inequalities that are historically entrenched in the power structure of Beast Island. So, from birth, even the most unfortunate Fleetches encounter fewer institutional roadblocks and greater opportunity than almost all Flootches, regardless of individual merit. One day, a group of Flootches (the ones who have not internalized their inferiority) get together and decide to agitate to change that system. They call their movement “Flootchism,” because it is specifically intended to address problems that disproportionately disadvantage Flootches while benefiting Fleetches. That makes sense, right?

Now imagine that, in response, a bunch of Fleetches begin complaining that Flootchism doesn’t address their needs, and they have problems too, and therefore the movement should really be renamed Beastism. To be fair. The problem with that name change is that it that undermines the basic mission of the movement, because it obscures (deliberately, I’d warrant) that beast society is inherently weighted against Flootches. It implies that all problems are just beast problems, and that all beasts suffer comparably, which cripples the very necessary effort to prioritize and repair problems that are Flootch-specific. Those problems are a priority because they harm all Flootches, systematically, whereas Fleetch problems merely harm individual Fleetches. To argue that all problems are just “beast problems” is to discredit the idea of inequality altogether. It is, in fact, insulting.


Part Four: A List of “Men’s Rights” Issues That Feminism Is Already Working On

Feminists do not want you to lose custody of your children. The assumption that women are naturally better caregivers is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not like commercials in which bumbling dads mess up the laundry and competent wives have to bustle in and fix it. The assumption that women are naturally better housekeepers is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to have to make alimony payments. Alimony is set up to combat the fact that women have been historically expected to prioritize domestic duties over professional goals, thus minimizing their earning potential if their “traditional” marriages end. The assumption that wives should make babies instead of money is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want anyone to get raped in prison. Permissiveness and jokes about prison rape are part of rape culture, which is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want anyone to be falsely accused of rape. False rape accusations discredit rape victims, which reinforces rape culture, which is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be lonely and we do not hate “nice guys.” The idea that certain people are inherently more valuable than other people because of superficial physical attributes is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to have to pay for dinner. We want the opportunity to achieve financial success on par with men in any field we choose (and are qualified for), and the fact that we currently don’t is part of patriarchy. The idea that men should coddle and provide for women, and/or purchase their affections in romantic contexts, is condescending and damaging and part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be maimed or killed in industrial accidents, or toil in coal mines while we do cushy secretarial work and various yarn-themed activities. The fact that women have long been shut out of dangerous industrial jobs (by men, by the way) is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to commit suicide. Any pressures and expectations that lower the quality of life of any gender are part of patriarchy. The fact that depression is characterized as an effeminate weakness, making men less likely to seek treatment, is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be viewed with suspicion when you take your child to the park (men frequently insist that this is a serious issue, so I will take them at their word). The assumption that men are insatiable sexual animals, combined with the idea that it’s unnatural for men to care for children, is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want you to be drafted and then die in a war while we stay home and iron stuff. The idea that women are too weak to fight or too delicate to function in a military setting is part of patriarchy.

Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charges, nor do we want men to be ridiculed for being raped or abused. The idea that women are naturally gentle and compliant and that victimhood is inherently feminine is part of patriarchy.

Feminists hate patriarchy. We do not hate you.

If you really care about those issues as passionately as you say you do, you should be thanking feminists, because feminism is a social movement actively dedicated to dismantling every single one of them. The fact that you blame feminists—your allies—for problems against which they have been struggling for decades suggests that supporting men isn’t nearly as important to you as resenting women. We care about your problems a lot. Could you try caring about ours?

Link to the rest at Jezebel

Mar, 2013

The Hogwarts Sorting Hat has been said to place kids based on qualities they value rather than those they exhibit — still, each of the school’s Houses does tend to collect a certain kind of student. Gryffindors are often brave and daring; Ravenclaws brainy and witty; Slytherins ambitious and cunning; and Hufflepuffs patient and loyal. It stands to reason, therefore, that each house would appreciate its own collection of reading material — but what actual books might a Gryffindor read? How would they compare to the reading list of a Slytherin?

It was while perusing acclaimed HP fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality that Jesse Galef (half of the brother/sister duo behind Measure of Doubt — a fantastic blog dedicated to rationality, science and philosophy) got to thinking about this exact question; what might a rational student from each house actually read? He writes:

I realized that there’s actually quite a lot of potential for interesting reading in each house. Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.

After much brainstorming, Galef produced four incredibly well-thought-out reading lists (one for each house), photographed their physical counterparts on a bookshelf, and even created a series of Facebook cover images, “so that you can display your pride both in rationality and in your chosen house.” Here’s the cover image for Gryffindor (click to enlarge), followed by its corresponding booklist. For the other houses’ lists, go check out Measure of Doubt. [Source: Measure of Doubt, via i09]

Mar, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

Infographics on the distribution of wealth in America, highlighting both the inequality and the difference between our perception of inequality and the actual numbers. The reality is often not what we think it is.


via Upworthy:

This pretty much speaks for itself. At 1:05, I get a rude awakening. At 1:41, he starts talking about you. At 2:24, he says a “bad” word. At 3:50, he kind of breaks my brain. At 4:50, he lets you know how broke you really are. At 5:20, he rubs it in. And at 5:50, he points out that reality isn’t close to what we think it is.