State of the Union

The Case for Civility Campaigns After Charlie Hebdo

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, several writers urged restraint, to avoid letting the actions of a few, very dangerous, extremists warp our relationship to all Muslims. But others saw the killings as a sign of a growing threat to public discourse, one that isn’t fueled exclusively, or even primarily, by Islamists.

At Spiked, editor Brendan O’Neill calls the murders of Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists “the barbaric conclusion to the new intolerance.” The Islamic extremists who answered cartoons with bullet, are, in O’Neill’s estimation, simply the ideological cousins of those who take offense at offense:

For the tragic fact is that this barbarism fits a depressing pattern in modern Europe. It speaks to the modern trend for seeking to destroy, crush or censor commentary, art or literature that offends small groups of people. It is a more extreme form – a far more extreme form – of something that has become tragically commonplace: the waging of intolerant wars against things judged by certain people to be offensive. Whether it’s mobs successfully having art exhibitions shut down or online gangs getting newspaper articles withdrawn or TV shows pulled, ours is an era in which the feelings of the offended are all too often elevated above the freedoms of thought and expression. The Paris massacre is a fouler, bloodier version of this urge to destroy material that offends people’s sensibilities.

O’Neill refrains from giving a single specific example of the kind of cultural warriors he sees as equivalent to armed shooters, but the proponents of trigger warnings, the petitioners against Grand Theft Auto V, and even the people tweeting against #manspreading arguably fit his criteria. Especially given that “escalates to violence” isn’t one of them.

In other recent pieces, O’Neill has highlighted “twitter riots” that force television cancellations as dangerous to speech, and singled out the Grand Theft Auto protests as the apotheosis of civility run amok,

It is bad enough when Victim Feminist campaigners depict the streets of London or New York City as terribly scary places for women – but to bemoan the abuse of women on the streets of GTA is just surreal, given that those streets are mere pixels, the women are just graphics, and the abuse is entirely imagined.

Arguing that campaigns for civility, against catcalling, against graphic sexual content in the public sphere, against “microaggressions,” differ only in degree, not in kind, from the Charlie Hebdo murders requires casting every cultural war as an exercise in annihilation.

In this schema, anyone pushing against offensive, crude, blasphemous, or otherwise objectionable material really has only one goal—the silence of the problematic speaker. Even those activists who refrain from explicit violence are, in O’Neill’s estimation, attempting to commit symbolic violence, directed toward destroying the opposition.

Activists do organize boycotts (against both products and people) and question the appropriateness of offering certain speakers your platform (refusing to amplify someone’s voice is not the same as silencing it). These tactics do make certain speech acts more costly, but they would be better met by a defense of the behavior or speech in question (which most colleges cancelling commencement speakers refused to offer) than an objection to all public condemnation as censorship.

O’Neill forgets that civility campaigners don’t just have the goal of protecting the delicate eyes and ears of the innocent. Often, activists have the good of the person giving offense in mind as well. Sometimes we offend out of ignorance of the implications of our speech, and loud opposition gives us the chance to reevaluate our actions.

In my own life, I didn’t know that “gyp” was a verb derived from a slur for the Roma people, until someone pointed out I was being offensive when I complained that D.C. cabbies were gypping me by pretending their meters were broken. Other people’s condemnation of my speech gave me the chance to change it.

It’s healthy to be reminded that an act does give offense or cause pain to others, and that these acts demand some other justification than “opposing political correctness.” Casual or thoughtless offense isn’t praiseworthy—as G.K. Chesterton says in The Man Who Was Thursday, “Revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.”

Ross Douthat singles out Charlie Hebdos work as important because it was met with violence. Transgressing limits that are policed with lethal force is an act of defiance that denies “the violent … veto power over liberal civilization.” But, once the danger is neutralized, not all offensive things need to go on being said or done for their own sake.

And, sometimes, they need to be opposed for the sake of the perpetrator, not just the person offended. The biggest problem with “manspreading” (the act of sitting, legs splayed, on the subway, preventing others from sitting beside you) is not that it places the people annoyed in danger, or that it prevents them from getting to work. It’s that it’s callous.

It’s not good for the person sitting this way to spend their commutes cultivating indifference to others’ needs and placing the burden on others to ask for a little courtesy. The point of calling out and opposing such a practice isn’t to solve the problem of congestion on public transit, but to oppose culture’s coarsening effects on us, wherever they occur.

Civility campaigners aren’t protecting victims from villains, but trying to foster a conversation about how to live well, and what constraints on our own actions we should accept, not due to fear of legal or violent reprisals, but out of positive concern for others.

This is not a project of censorship and violence, trying to prevent exposure to what offends us, but a project of education and charity, trying to know and love our neighbors well enough to only offend when necessary, tempering our actions by cultivating empathy for and understanding of the pain of others.

When pressure comes through boycotts or a simple “You really shouldn’t say that” there’s an invitation to dialogue that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not offered by their murderers. We shouldn’t fear giving an answer to the people who question us, or be ashamed that, once we listen to their objections, we might change our behavior.

The New York Times’s Statistical Contraception Failure

The New York Times published a deeply misleading infographic on contraceptive failure rates this weekend.

The NYT graphic plots contraceptive failure rates for 15 different methods of contraception over 10 years, apparently showing that, although a typical woman relying on condoms for contraception may only have an 18 percent chance of pregnancy over one year, an unplanned pregnancy becomes a virtual certainty by the time she’s been sexually active for 10 years, with the chance of pregnancy nearly quintupling to 86 percent.

Below those red-alert curves, the NYT also tracked (along the dashed grey lines) the risk of pregnancy for atypical women and their partners, those who manage “perfect use” of their preferred form of contraception.

The NYT generated these graphs by looking only at failure rates for contraception over one year, and then doing some arithmetic to model the chance of failure over the long term. It’s the same math used to figure out how often you might need to flip a fair coin to eventually wind up with “heads” but it doesn’t work so well with this kind of data.

The chance getting “heads” on the first flip is 50-50. If you want to know what the chance is that you’ll get a heads within two flips, or three, the easiest way to compute the answer is to check the odds that you’d flip tails every time, and then subtract from 100 percent. So, the odds of getting two tails in a row is .5 multiplied by .5, or .5^2. This results in a 25 percent chance of only tails, and a 75 percent chance of getting at least one “Heads” within two flips. In three trials, the chance of triple tails is .5^3, i.e. a 12.5 percent chance of getting no heads at all, and, thus, an 87.5 percent chance of getting heads at least once.

This is the math that produces the smoothly rising curves on display at the NYT. It’s the right kind of statistics to use if you’re talking about some fixed risk, like the chance of winning a coin flip. But the chance of unintended pregnancy isn’t likely to remain constant over a 10-year period.

For one thing, the women who get pregnant in their first year of using a particular form of contraception may be different than the rest of the women in their cohort. A significant proportion of the women who wind up pregnant may be more fertile than average (or are having sex with a guy with excellent sperm). Irregular cycles may make it harder for them to use NFP charting successfully. They may work schedules that make it much harder to stick to an “every day, same time” form of contraception like the Pill. The may be college students having a lot of tipsy sex, and not remembering to manage condoms very well.

Once those women get pregnant in the first year, they’re out of the analysis, as far as the NYT is concerned. But the charts continue to use the risk probabilities set by the most unsuccessful group of contraceptors as the baseline risk for everyone who remains. There’s no room in the model for selection effects.

But even if we ignore this confounder, and pretend that women who get pregnant in their first year of using contraception are behaviorally and hormonally identical to those who don’t, it would still be a bad idea to extrapolate the numbers out over a 10 year period. Women in their first year of contraceptive use aren’t going to behave the same way as women who have been sexually active and contracepting for five or 10 years.

More of the women will be in exclusive partnerships in the last five years than were at the outset, and they may have settled into more of a contraceptive routine that is easier for them and their partner to stick to. They may also just be having a lot less sex, so the risk would drop accordingly. Additionally, due to declining fertility, women in their thirties experience a lower risk of contraception failure than women in their twenties.

To paint an accurate portrait of long-term contraceptive failure rates, it would make more sense to use actual five or 10 year failure rates, instead of these flawed models. Unfortunately, in many cases, that data does not exist. A Guttmacher analysis of the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth found that women tend to switch or discontinue methods of contraception frequently.

For example, 90 percent of women quit using sponges as contraception within two years of relying on them (and presumably not due to an Elaine Benes-like shortage). At that point, the NYT‘s estimate that the sponge has a 75 percent failure rate after five years starts to look irrelevant, as well as misleading.

Presenting flawed data is dangerous, since it can mislead readers and alter their behavior. For instance, a couple looking over the NYT graphs on Sunday might be more likely to play a bit more fast and loose with their contraceptive plans, since their work seemed doomed to fail anyway. Psychologists call this the “What the Hell” effect—it’s the same impulse that prompts us to eat four more cookies once you’ve already broken your diet by eating one.

So, if there’s a small baby boom in nine months, it may be the NYT number crunchers, not the contraceptives, that failed their users.

Marital Completionism: A Bad Model for Thruples and Couples Alike

Why assume you need to make compromises to achieve connubial bliss?

In an article for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan profiles several polyamorous couples and wonders whether more families should consider open (non-monogamous) marriages. Khazan argues that polyamory’s great advantage is that practitioners better divide up and delegate the duties and pleasures of a relationship, mixing and matching for the best of all possible marriages. She writes:

Even many devout monogamists admit that it can be hard for one partner to supply the full smorgasbord of the other’s sexual and emotional needs. When critics decry polys as escapists who have simply “gotten bored” in traditional relationships, polys counter that the more people they can draw close to them, the more self-actualized they can be.

There’s an enormous assumption tucked into that first sentence. Monogamy isn’t premised on the idea that one person can ever be everything to a partner. When a marriage fails to fulfill “the full smorgasbord” it’s not a sign that anything’s wrong. An expectation that a partner (or full set of them) is meant to be a perfect complement is destructive to romantic and platonic relationships.

Unfortunately, the premises of Khazan aren’t confined to a negligible niche (polyamorous or otherwise). A survey commissioned by USA Network of 18-34 year olds in four cities (Austin, Omaha, Nashville, and Phoenix) found that 10 percent of respondents endorsed multiple partners within a marriage, “each of whom fulfills a need in your life.”

What does this mean in practice? One of the women profiled in the Atlantic story explains that she and her husband looked to add partners to their marriages because the spouses couldn’t fulfill all of each other’s needs. Her husband was interested in kinky sex, so he found a woman to practice BDSM with him, but the wife’s new boyfriend was picked for a more prosaic need: the boyfriend goes to the theatre with her and sees shows her husband wouldn’t enjoy.

The reporter asks what she calls “the logical, mono-normative question” why the wife didn’t simply leave her husband for her theatre-boyfriend, but the more relevant question is: why she didn’t just book season tickets for herself and a friend? Kinky sex is, well, sexual, but going out to the theatre isn’t an activity that’s reserved to lovers.

It’s natural for friends to fill the gaps in a marital relationship, indulging interests that aren’t shared with the spouse, providing emotional support, and simply varying our lens on the world. After all, C.S. Lewis’s observation in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other. Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest,” wasn’t meant as an aspirational image for spouses.

Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other. Read More…

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Our Starved for Touch Culture

When did the Friendzone become such a terrible place to live?

In the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings, the unpleasant underbelly of the pickup artist community (PUA), involuntary celibates (incels), and other unhealthy refuges for lonely men have drawn scrutiny and condemnation. They describe themselves as exiles; in the case of the Isla Vista shooter, he decided to destroy the world he couldn’t enter, instead of building something new outside it.

Their sense of exclusion is exacerbated by the stories we tell about sex as a prize you can earn and the tendency of the media to shame sexual inexperience (The Daily Mail referred to the shooter as “The Virgin Killer,” implicitly agreeing that his sexual exploits, or lack thereof, defined him). It is also exacerbated by the stories we don’t tell about friendship and platonic love.

The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.

If affection is merely foreplay, then a person who isn’t having luck approaching people romantically is also cut off from most normal human comforts. That kind of isolation is tremendously harmful.

In the 1960s, Harry Harlow conducted a famous series of experiments in which he gave infant monkeys a choice between mother-substitutes made of cloth or wire. Even when it was only the wire “mother” that fed the monkeys, they came to it only to eat, and clung to the cloth mothers that gave sustenance of a different sort. The monkeys who were only given wire mothers were more skittish and would cling to their cloth diapers as the only source of soft contact in their cage.

Some men and women feel that they’ve wound up in a wire monkey world. In an essay for The Good Men project (“The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer”), Mark Greene talked about how isolated he was from others, until he had a child to take care of:

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a hand shake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. … I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. As a stay at home dad, I spent years with my son. Day after day, he sat in the crook of my arm, his little arm across my shoulder, his hand on the back of my neck. As he surveyed the world from on high, I came to know a level of contentment and calm that had heretofore been missing in my life.

The isolation may be more pronounced for men, since physical contact between two women is less likely to be stigmatized or even remarked upon. In my own experience, however, usually the only time I make physical contact with another person is when I shake the priest’s hand on my way out of Mass. When I went on a cultural exchange trip to China, I was surprised and jealous when our group leader warned us that friends commonly hold hands in China, and we shouldn’t assume a host was flirting with us if they did so.

In America, that kind of physical affection would be unusual between pairs of friends, especially if both were male. But, if friends are off limits, where else are people to turn for physical reassurance? Read More…

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Amazon’s War Is First in a Series

amazon delay

In an effort to get publisher Hachette to agree to give Amazon a larger cut of their profits, the web giant has begun playing hardball. First, Amazon listed Hachette books as delayed, informing customers that they’d be waiting three to four weeks for them, instead of the customary two days, and wouldn’t they prefer to read something else?

Then, the fight escalated, and Amazon listed some Hachette books as completely unavailable while marking up others and pushing customers toward “similar items at a lower price.” While Hachette authors (including this website’s Rod Dreher) complain, creators and consumers find themselves with limited power to affect the outcome of the dispute. Unfortunately, this struggle could become the first in a series.

The problem isn’t that Amazon wants to make more money, but the heavy-handed tactics they are using to force Hachette to the bargaining table, which may become more common if the FCC doesn’t find a way to preserve net neutrality. Net neutrality is the current status quo online, where all data comes to you at about the same speed. For example, if your internet service provider (ISP) is Comcast, they aren’t allowed to slow down all news sites besides NBC (which they own) in an effort to get you to change your media consumption habits.

The FCC is considering new rules for net neutrality, including the possibility of scrapping it all together. If the old rules are thrown out, customers will have to rely on market forces, not regulation, to limit corporate chicanery. But, as Amazon’s war of attrition with Hachette suggests, ordinary consumers have a limited ability to force a marketplace to stay open to all.

Consumers have more power to punish Amazon than an internet service provider. Striking back against the retailer means placing your order somewhere else or cancelling your Prime membership. Punishing your ISP is an all or nothing affair, and switching providers means spending the day at home waiting for the cable guy. That’s if you have the power to change at all, since many apartment dwellers are stuck with whichever company the landlord lets into the building, and years of crony capitalism have established regional monopolies at larger scales. An ISP would need to behave truly egregiously to lose customers.

The Hachette authors whose books are debuting now are being hamstrung by the current conflict; a reader who sees an interesting review, clicks over to Amazon, and closes the tab once she sees the book isn’t available probably won’t end up buying the book, enjoying it, and recommending it to her friends. Websites and online services similarly depend on word of mouth to jumpstart their growth, which becomes more unlikely as the loading bar lengthens.

Hachette is an established company, with a stable of eloquent clients, who are used to pleading their case in writing. The web companies that will be hurt by the end of net neutrality are less likely to have Hachette’s ability to attract headlines. If they fail to propitiate the ISPs that serve your neighborhood, you’ll probably never hear of them to miss them.

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Treating Heartbreak With a Pill

Instead of comforting a friend after a break up with ice cream and a movie, bioethicist Brian D. Earp foresees the possibility of an anti-love drug, which could nip those regretful feelings in the bud.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology, he anticipates a toned down version of the chemical castration cocktail that is offered to pedophiles today. His paper isn’t science-fiction speculation; he cites antidepressants and other existing drugs that could be repurposed for their anti-romantic side effects.

Earp subdivides love into three components: lust (the desire to have sex with the beloved), attraction (frequent, even obsessive thoughts about the beloved), and attachment (feeling of security with the beloved, anxiety without), and puts together a literature review of possible interventions to short-circuit any of these feelings or a combination thereof.

Omitted from Earp’s taxonomy of love is agape—the love that desires nothing above the good of the beloved, and does not require anything in return. Earp’s interventions all focus on suppressing or dampening the experience of lust, attraction, or attachment, but not on sublimating them into an expression of the higher love of agape. If a patient chose to forgo medical treatment, Earp imagines he or she would address the problem by “focusing on the loved one’s faults, … deleting all of her emails,” still focusing on expunging love rather than transfiguring it.

Among the pathological loves Earp lists that might merit these medical erasures are:

  • Romantic love for someone other than one’s spouse.
  • Love of a battered woman or man for the abuser.
  • Unrequited love that leads to despair or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Incestuous love.
  • Love for a cult leader

In these circumstances, and others like them, Earp concludes that “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology … could be justified or even morally required.” Earp circumscribes this moral imperative to mean that it would be morally wrong to interfere with a person choosing treatment, not that it would be immoral to refuse it, but it is worth noting that most of the examples that Earp cites are ones where the lover would not want to take the drugs, at least initially.

An individual’s choice will be shaped by the soft coercion of friends, family, and society deciding it’s finally time to intervene. Just as voluntary euthanasia has drawn criticism for the potential for weak groups (women, the elderly, the disabled) to feel pressured to die “altruistically” so as not to become a burden, anti-love drugs might create a new social responsibility for the romantically bereft to take their medicine and move on. Read More…

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Can Google Search for Friendship?

When in need of information, be it a recipe or a repair tip, people are increasingly likely to pull out a digital device rather than ask another human being. In one British survey, only a quarter of children under 15 said they would look to their parents before Google for answers to their questions. That may be convenient for the mothers and fathers of young children in the perpetual “why” phase, but the ease of online search may be streamlining serendipitous conversations out of fashion. If all information is a Google search away, asking another person for help can feel like delegating a clerical task.

In fact, the website “Let Me Google That For You” ( exists to rebuke those who ask a friend something that they should have googled. The site’s creators describe it as “For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than search for it for themselves.” The unstated premise is that asking for help is a rude imposition, one that reveals incompetence or laziness.

But relying on friends to supply even trivial knowledge is part of how relationships strengthen and grow. Brushing off small requests makes it harder to ask for big ones: there won’t be a history of help exchanged to make someone brave enough to be vulnerable.

LMGTFY has become popular enough that in 2012 it made Time’s list of the 50 best websites on the Internet. In their words, “Most people figured out a long time ago that when you want to know something, there’s no more reliable way to get an answer than to Google it. Some folks, however, need a gentle reminder.” Google, after all, aspires to be, in the words of co-founder Larry Page, the “perfect search engine,” one that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

But even the best search algorithm can’t sort sites for a sense of empathy or community; that comes from people, not pages. If a friend asks me about a blown fuse, he may be looking not just for repair instructions, but sympathy. When I need to find the right temperature for toasting walnuts, if I ask a roommate, instead of a search engine, I might get a recipe recommendation or a story about baking gone awry.

These casual conversations strengthen the bonds of affection—what C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves describes as the humblest love, which serves as the base for all others: “But Affection has its own criteria. Its objects have to be familiar. We can sometimes point to the very day and hour when we fell in love or began a new friendship. I doubt if we ever catch Affection beginning.” The just-the-facts approach of a search engine precludes the stories, sympathy, and sense of affection that are reinforced by an incidental conversation.

Even new, online forms of association and friendship can suffer from the Google effect. Nick Yee, a senior research scientist at video game maker Ubisoft and the author of The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us, and How They Don’t, conducted interviews with the users of online roleplaying games (RPG’s) to find out how the easy availability of information affected the sociability of these communities.

Online RPG’s offer a microcosm of human interaction. Many of the earliest iterations of these games forced mutual dependence on players: there were no maps of the game world, so you had to trade stories with other players and sketch out the lay of the land together, much like stopping at a service station in a rural area to get directions from the locals. There were no central repositories of hints or step-by-step walk-throughs for quests, so if you got stuck on a mission, you needed someone with experience to talk you through it. thisarticle

But gamers and companies have both worked to reduce the known unknowns of these worlds. For many of the players that Yee interviewed, these changes made life much easier for the characters they played within the game but less rich and interesting for the players themselves in real life. As information became available the pace of these online games became faster and faster, but the gameplay itself became lonelier. With exploration of the world unnecessary, conversation became an inconsiderate interruption, not part of the leisurely flow of the game.

If questions are brushed off as inconsiderate, in games or in day-to-day life, one might ask what important business they’re interrupting. The ease of the Internet can reduce busywork and free up time, but even Google autocomplete won’t tell us how to fill the time we’ve saved. Leisure is only an instrumental good, and even as online conveniences grant more time to spend with friends and family, they have chipped away at the natural cues to do so. And as the forces of circumstance that bind friends and acquaintances weaken, depending on someone comes to require a deliberate decision—and all the more effort.

Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at TAC and blogs for Patheos at Unequally Yoked.

When the Pursuit of Health Turns Pathological

This is likely to be a record-setting year in baseball. Players are on track to eclipse the number of Tommy John surgeries ever performed in a year, breaking 2012’s old record of 69 operations across the major and minor leagues. Despite efforts to rest pitchers and reduce the rate of elbow injury, surgeries are still spiking. The surgery has gained such an aura of inevitability that one cause for its prevalence may be pitchers’ expectation that they’ll go under the knife sooner or later. Brian Wilson, a reliever with the Dodgers, told the New York Times, “[N]ow people are getting Tommy John with the slightest tear. … It’s very precautious.”

As baseball struggles to emerge from the taint of the steroid era, the rise of Tommy John surgery has mostly been treated as a problem of players’ health, but the normalizing of this kind of repair points to a similar problem with the way players strain to meet impossible expectations of their bodies.

Tommy John surgery may have escaped the stigma of “cheating” because, although surgery is invasive, the procedure seems intuitively more natural than popping pills. Instead of introducing a foreign substance to the body, the surgery replaces a pitcher’s ulnar collateral ligament with one of his own tendons from elsewhere in the body. It’s more like using skin grafts to cover a burn than slathering on steroid cream. Of course, it also bears a more than passing resemblance to adulterating your blood with your own blood, as Lance Armstrong and his teammates did.

Why doesn’t Tommy John surgery draw comparisons to doping? The surgery isn’t just more natural with respect to its methods, but also in terms of its aims. Although some baseball players believe that they’ll come back stronger from the procedure, the goal isn’t to augment the player’s pitching, but to repair an injury. The players are being returned to natural health, not pushed past normal (well, normal for a pro athlete) ability. The surgery passes the same test as double-amputee Oscar Pistorius’s carbon fiber legs—acceptable as long as they don’t make him better than he was with his original, flesh and blood legs.

Although the surgeries may simply restore pitchers to their pre-injury abilities, there is something about them that does fly in the face of the natural order. Of the 80 percent of pitchers who return to form, some will be re-injured and repatched. The cycle of injury, surgery, re-injury, new surgery treats the human body like one of Henry Ford’s cars; plentifully stocked with swappable parts. The damage is treated less like a wound and more like an ordinary part of work. Read More…

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The Rights and Responsibilities of Search Engine Users

While truth has usually been a defense to charges of libel, Google is running into a higher standard in Europe. The European Union Court of Justice, considering the threat that Google can pose to privacy, seems to be applying a standard closer to the “Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary?” test.

In the press release announcing their decision, the European Court ruling found that Google was trampling on a right to be forgotten. Even if the information Google was linking to was accurate and lawfully published, Google and other search engines could be at fault for making that information too easy to find. Google wouldn’t have to purge this information preemptively, just in response to complaints, but, still, acceding to this ruling would still be tremendously difficult.

Google is already engaged in one enormous curation problem: policing content uploaded to YouTube. Although algorithms can detect piracy and copyright infringement, detecting obscenity still relies on the “I know it when I see it” test, which requires a human viewer. Google contractors have to watch content flagged as abusive, violent, or obscene in order to rule it in or out. Screening links for “relevance” would be emotionally easier than taking a shift in the YouTube curatorial department, but the judgement calls will be a lot harder to defend.

Google’s leadership presumably would like to avoid being dragged into culture fights, especially when only one month ago they faced controversy over the decision to purge ads for crisis pregnancy centers from searches related to abortion. But the European ruling could force them to play referee on a host of new issues. Google (in partnership with a European court) would now be expected to assess the relevance of any information and the prominence of the person filing.

Would Google have a duty to keep abreast of the employment history of the people asking to be removed from searches? If not, people just on the cusp of prominence might file general takedowns, to avoid the fate of the Benham brothers. Their show on HGTV was cancelled before it began when their Google histories of anti-gay marriage and anti-Islam activism caught up with them. Asking Google to manage your online identity would still be easier than the solution that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once proposed: declare identity bankruptcy and legally change your name to escape your search results.

If Europe has an expansive view of the right to be forgotten, America has a sprawling understanding of the right to information. Anything that enters the public sphere, even phone calls recorded illegally, can be fair game for public comment and calls to action. Simply leaving your house and going to WalMart is enough to put you in the public eye as a public figure to be discussed and disparaged on People of Walmart.

Just because information is easy to come by, through Google or any other source, doesn’t exempt us from responsibility for seeking it out and acting upon it. Instead of depending on a right to be forgotten, our society is healthier when people choose to avert their eyes or look with charity.

The solution may not be for Google to become a curator but for searchers to learn to practice better custody of the eyes. After all, hasn’t the internet age taught us that large duties are easier to handle when they’re crowdsourced?

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Save Smallpox, Not Pandas

San Diego can give up its hopes of producing a sister panda cub to Washington D.C.’s Bao Bao in the near future. Both of the San Diego Zoo’s pandas have encountered health issues that make it unlikely that either will work as half of a breeding pair again. The male panda has lost one testicle to cancer and has a heart condition; the female has probably hit menopause.

Of course, these new setbacks only represent a marginal increase in difficulty for the breeding program; the major obstacle remains the pandas themselves. San Diego’s pair are the only pandas in the United States who have managed to reproduce naturally. Zoos appear to have stocked their pens with pandas of the Bartleby variety, who would prefer not to reproduce, despite zookeepers attempts to show the pandas porn, artificially inseminate pandas with the sperm of deceased males, and even build obstacles into the panda pens, in the hopes that the female will trip over them and fall into proper breeding position.

Even when these attempts succeed, pandas have a tendency to neglect or accidentally suffocate the cubs they manage to produce. The baby pandas that survive remain the property of the Chinese government, forcing a kind of sterility on any panda breeding project.

While we struggle to keep captive pandas alive, next week the World Health Organization will decide whether to definitively wipe another species from the earth, one considerably more dangerous. On May 19th, the WHO will vote on a recommendation that Russia and the United States destroy their remaining stores of smallpox. Smallpox has been completely eradicated, so, if the samples were destroyed, it would be nearly impossible for the disease to ever recur as the result of accidental breach or bioterrorism. However, destroying the disease stocks would preclude any further research.

Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the National Institute of Health’s NIAID Integrated Research Facility has been using our national stores of smallpox to infect monkeys with the disease, in order to develop new vaccines for humans. His research, and that of other scientists trying to learn how to contain this and similar plagues, would be cancelled if the smallpox reserves were destroyed.

There is no smallpox equivalent of the panda cams; almost no one can quickly picture the delicate, football-shaped smallpox capsids in the way we can call up images of roly-poly pandas. Smallpox preservation is plainly intended to serve the good of humans alone, and no larger environmental cause. There’s nothing particularly noble or aesthetically compelling about the cause.

Panda preservation should fall into the same category. Zoos are not conserving the panda for the sake of the panda but for the entertainment of the human spectators. Pandas in captivity could not sustain themselves, and there is little hope they can be trained to carry on their species without intervention. Any conservationist who praises themselves for “saving” the panda must recognize that the zoo breeding programs do little more than animate the corpse of the species.

The smallpox stockpiles fall more naturally under the the project of “conservation” than that of panda preservation. Smallpox reserves and research are meant to conserve the existence of humans. Pandas are more similar to the destructively bred bulldog, which also is incapable of reproducing on its own. If zoos wish to keep pandas around, they should admit it is for the sake of humans, not the pandas themselves.

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Polio Breaks Out After the U.S. Breaks Trust

President Roosevelt dining with polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia
President Roosevelt dining with polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia

Only two diseases have ever been completely eradicated worldwide: smallpox and rinderpest. But hopes for eradicating a third have dimmed with the World Health Organization’s announcement that the spread of polio has become a global health emergency.

After over 25 years of eradication campaigns, polio had been beaten back into only a handful of countries, and, by 2012, polio was eliminated or in sharp decline in all but three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. But, as the virus has come roaring back, the WHO has set travel restrictions on new hotspots. Residents of Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon are advised not to leave their countries unless they have been vaccinated against the disease and cannot carry it beyond their borders.

Pakistan is the cradle of the resurgent polio. Of the 74 cases of wild polio reported this year to date, 59 occurred in Pakistan. The increasing prevalence isn’t due to a new mutation or drug resistance; the resistance is coming from the Pakistani people, not the microorganisms that live inside them.

The vaccinators lost moral credibility when, in order to confirm the identity of Bin Laden prior to his assassination, the United States ran a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad. Although doctors claimed they were going door to door to give inoculations, the blood draws they conducted were used for DNA tests discover whether any relatives of Bin Laden were living in town.

After Seal Team Six carried out their mission, some Taliban leaders banned vaccinations in the regions under their control and over a dozen vaccinators were murdered, forcing Pakistan to put its eradication campaign on hold. The doctor who conducted the operation was arrested by Pakistan’s own intelligence agency and held on charges of treason.

The doctor was accused of betraying his country to serve another government, but the United States itself came under fire for betraying the medical community and putting public health at risk. Scientific American excoriated the United States for disrupting and profaning a historically neutral and altruistic profession. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) said that the CIA operation was a “grave manipulation of the medical act” and endangered the lifesaving work doctors conducted around the globe.

If doctors could be spies in disguise, how could nations welcome them in? In Syria, where polio is spreading amid the chaos of the civil war, how can vaccinators persuade Assad to let them move freely within the country, if they could be doubling as spies, assassins, or gun runners? Read More…

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History Hidden as Hologram

Sculpture in Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel Bernhard Richter /
Sculpture in Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel Bernhard Richter /

The technology that lets directors animate a CGI dragon with Benedict Cumberbatch’s snarls, or tweak the nuances of an Marlon Brando’s expressions in post-production is complicating the idea of primary source documents.

Paul Debevec, of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology, has taken on some philanthropic work as an addition to his work on big-budget Hollywood projects. Debevec has partnered with the U.S.C. Shoah Foundation to record holographic oral histories from Holocaust survivors. But, in Debevec’s vision, these recordings wouldn’t be static. As he told The New Yorker, he plans for them to be interactive.

Soon, Debevec said, the digital version of [Pinchas] Gutter could be projected into a classroom and questioned by students. The holographic replica could draw on the archive of interviews to answer almost any question relevant to Gutter’s personal history; it could also deflect off-the-wall queries. As Debevec and his colleagues envisaged it, Gutter would be answering questions about the Holocaust long after he was dead.

The New Yorker profile points out that this isn’t as large a leap as it might sound. When Thomas Edison designed his wax cylindrical records–the forerunners of today’s MP3s–he imagined they might be used to tape the last words of a dying relative and to play back their final blessings for years to come.

However, a sound recording or a static picture is more clearly a snapshot of a deceased person than the proposed hologram would be. The responsiveness of Gutter’s simulacra is what chips away at his authenticity. The researchers in the article say that the Gutter displayed could wind up with the same kind of conversational fluency as Siri or any other chatbot.

When students go off-script, and ask the ghost of Gutter questions he never answered in his oral history, they will still receive answers, but their partner will have become the program that animates his face, not the record that the man left in life. And just as Siri is updated to make it easy for the user to pose questions in colloquial language, Gutter’s curators and guardians may “help” him by allowing him to reply to questions he never could have understood, phrased in the slang of times to come.

The extraordinary flexibility of the hologram and modelling technology also allow museum-keepers to update the replies Gutter offers. Once the simulation software has enough footage, it can invent or alter expressions or sync up new animations to new audio. A virtual Gutter could be changed to make reference to events that happened after his death, so that visitors would have an easier time translating his experience into their frame of reference. The animators could even make subtle changes to Gutter’s affect as he repeats the answers he recorded in life, to match the norms of the day. The levers exist, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll never be used. Read More…

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Drop Those Wedding Rings in the Name of the Law

Most gay marriage lawsuits have been brought by couples, but, in North Carolina, it’s the clergy filing suit. Ministers from the United Church of Christ are going to federal court to claim that the state’s gay marriage ban encroaches on their religious liberty: North Carolina not only bans same-sex weddings at the courthouse, but holds ministers and other people authorized to conduct weddings liable if they perform unauthorized marriages.

The New York Times characterized the suit as “a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban” and Time noted that it was the “first time for a national Christian denomination to sue in favor of same-sex marriage.” The UCC suit is a hybrid case, which folds in some familiar claims about an intrinsic right to gay marriage into its religious liberty claims. If the North Carolina ban falls, it will likely be due to the familiar claims brought by the couples, not the novel religious liberty claims made by their pastors.

The suit has three sets of plaintiffs, making two different types of arguments. The first two classes of plaintiffs are the church itself and its ministers, both of whom are making a religious liberty claim about their ability to conduct marriages ceremonies in their churches. The third class is the gay couples themselves who are making both a religious liberty claim about church weddings as well as an equal protection and due process claim against the state’s ban on the legal recognition of gay marriages, which more closely resembles previous suits.

The North Carolina gay marriage amendment (passed as Amendment One, incorporated into the state constitution as Article XIV, Section 6) doesn’t limit religious liberty. The amendment does not make it illegal for same-sex couples to have private, unofficial marriage ceremonies, or to set up legal contracts to approximate the full rights and privileges of marriage as closely as they can. The amendment states:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

A private ceremony becomes a crime if the officiant has been empowered by the state to conduct legal marriages. If a minister presides at one of these legally invalid marriages as forbidden by § 51-6, “No minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife, until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage of the said persons,” he or she can be fined up to $200 per couple, according to state statute § 51-7.

This restriction is part of North Carolina’s general code, and predates the gay marriage amendment. It is the law being contested under religious liberty claims. However, it’s less an anti-gay marriage provision than an anti-fraud law. The statute is the legal equivalent of banning notaries public from witnessing and stamping invalid or unofficial contracts, even if they promise to use a unofficial stamp. As long as they’re going through the same motions and procedures as when they conduct official state business, there’s the possibility for confusion. Read More…

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SpaceX Sues to Shoot for the Stars

SpaceX Dragon Berths at the International Space Station NASA /  cc
SpaceX Dragon Berths at the International Space Station NASA / cc

Silicon Valley CEO Elon Musk is used to red tape interfering with his transportation companies. First, his electric Tesla cars were kept out of states like New Jersey, when the state’s laws barred the company from selling cars directly to consumers, cutting out the middle man at the dealership.

While that suit is pending, Musk is opening a new case against the federal government, which he claims is unfairly excluding SpaceX from competition to launch Air Force and military satellites. Currently, the next round of 36 rocket core purchases are earmarked specifically for United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has successfully completed 9 launches for NASA, though only half of those launches match the configuration required by the Air Force. The Falcon 9 is four times cheaper than the competing rockets from ULA, and SpaceX is working to make their rockets recoverable and reusable with the vertical takeoff/vertical landing system shown below in a recent test.

The bottleneck that SpaceX is facing is a matter of certification. Currently, SpaceX is not eligible to compete for contracts, because the company’s inspection and evaluation by the Air Force is still in process. Musk is requesting that the certification process he refers to as just “a paperwork exercise” be sped up. If the bureaucracy is impossible to rush, he’d settle for it slowing down, and waiting to award the long-term contract until SpaceX is eligible to compete.

After the legacy of the Challenger disaster, it’s understandable that the national space program is leery of embracing the Silicon Valley slogan of “Move fast. Break things.” Although the certification process may be onerous and badly-timed, it is not obvious that these hurdles are more obstructive than helpful.

However, Musk forsees a different danger in delays. In a time of increasing tensions with Russia, Musk believes it’s particularly urgent that America’s national security launches be carried out by an American company. In testimony before the defense subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Musk said:

Our Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are truly made in America. We design and manufacture the rockets in California and Texas, with key suppliers throughout the country, and launch them from either Vandenberg AFB or Cape Canaveral AFS. This stands in stark contrast to the United Launch Alliance’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas V, which uses a Russian main engine and where approximately half the airframe is manufactured overseas. In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.

Until 2017, regardless of the provenance of parts, NASA will remain dependent on the Russian space program and their Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS. An all-American industry could give the United States more autonomy in managing launches and logistics.

Ultimately, space exploration is, by necessity, too collaborative for the United States to achieve independence by sourcing their parts differently. Launches and payloads must be coordinated with other nations to keep the International Space Station running. Thus, the ISS was exempted from the recent order for NASA to disengage from their Russian counterparts. Additionally, all nations are forced to work together to manage the proliferation of space junk and mitigate the danger to any nation’s satellites.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX program is unlikely to revolutionize our pursuit of the stars, but the company has the potential to lower the cost of rockets and raise pressure on competing companies to innovate. The Air Force shouldn’t cut corners to include Musk’s company in the newest round of contracts, but, if a small delay or accommodation would allow SpaceX to participate, we may speed up the pace of progress.

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Boycotting the Arts and Academia

The Russians are withdrawing. Not from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but from Washington D.C. where the Woolly Mammoth Theatre has just canceled its festival of four plays from Moscow. As the political climate chilled, the Moscow Cultural Ministry decided to pull its funds from the festival, and Woolly Mammoth was unable to make up the difference.

This is the second controversial play cancellation this season in the nation’s capital. Theater J was forced to cancel performances of The Admission, an Israeli play modeled on Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Like Miller’s play, The Admission focused on a family haunted by possible complicity in wartime wrongdoings.

After a sustained campaign by Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) to shame Theater J’s donors into withdrawing their funds, The Admission had its run shortened, and the production was scaled back to a workshop, rather than a full staging. Ultimately, a local restaurant and another D.C. theater stepped in to keep the show going.

The partial victory won by COPMA is, presumably, the exact kind of tool the BDS movement (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) is hoping to bring to bear on Israel, although the two groups aim at completely different results. Like COPMA, BDS supporters aren’t confining their efforts to the business sphere but have moved on to the marketplace of ideas and culture.

In late 2013, the American Studies Association, an organization of American college and university professors, voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. They became the second academic consortium to approve a boycott, following the Asian American Studies Association, which voted to intellectually divest in April 2013.

Conventionally, sanctions are a punitive tool of foreign policy that are intended to bring the offending country back to the bargaining table. Or, in extreme cases, to make life under the intransigent government so uncomfortable that the citizens push for regime change, whether democratically or otherwise.

An arts and academia boycott doesn’t quite fit the bill. The pain of restrictions on researchers or experimental theater companies is unlikely to trickle down to voters or up to politicians. But, even worse, when the time comes to broker some kind of détente, both sides will be worse off for losing the weak bonds of shared culture and learning. In the case of academic boycotts, the world as a whole will be worse off as researchers end up siloed and isolated from their peers, as mathematician Edward Frenkel was until he caught a lucky break.

Unfortunately, the United States has behaved just as shortsightedly as Russia during this crisis. While Moscow has held back artists, Washington has directed NASA to stop collaborating with their Russian counterparts. Extra-terrestrial blustering has been curbed a little by pragmatism; NASA is still allowed to coordinate plans for the International Space Station, and, of course, all launches of American astronauts, which will occur on Russian soil until 2017 at the earliest.

While boycotts and divestment can do good, both by putting pressure on foreign leaders and by singling out regimes on the world stage, bringing sanctions to the actual stage or to laboratories or lecture halls undermines both sides ability to understand one another and to be prepared to work together when negotiations resume.

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General Mills and Consumers’ Contracting Access to Courts

General Mills
General Mills

In films, signing a contract is a considered, deliberate affair. Pens are inked, notaries are summoned, and stamps thud down as witness. But, in the eyes of General Mills, rights could be signed away with the beep of a supermarket scanner or the click of a “Like” button.

With a new revision to its online terms of service, General Mills has informed its customers that redeeming a cereal coupon constitutes a binding agreement to give up their rights to sue the company. Instead, if they are unsatisfied with their Wheaties, they could only settle the complaint through private arbitration. In arbitration, the customer brings suit to a private court, chosen by the company, which is not bound by the ordinary legal system.

After a flurry of complaints, General Mills first clarified their policy, addressing concerns that their language was so broad, that it seemed like almost any interaction with the company, from a Facebook like to just purchasing their goods, might entail giving up rights to a day in court. In fact, according to the company, if you just plain like their products, and indicate as much on Facebook, you’re in the clear. But, if you receive a coupon in exchange for your “Like,” you’re out of luck in the case of a dispute.

When these statements failed to mollify consumers, General Mills dropped the new language completely. But although General Mills was forced to back down in less than a week, other companies have managed to make coercive contracts stick, even when the terms of the contract may be illegal.

In 2010, a British gaming company parodied the contractual creep of end user license agreements (EULAs) by adding a clause to theirs that stated that customers must sign over their souls in order to play; some companies have slipped in language almost equally absurd. Dentists using contracts from a company called “Medical Justice” inform their customers that, in order to have their teeth cleaned, they must surrender their ability to write bad reviews of the practitioner. As one Ars Technica reporter discovered when he went in for his checkup:

[I]t asked me to “exclusively assign all Intellectual Property rights, including copyrights” to “any written, pictorial, and/or electronic commentary” I might make about Dr. Cirka’s services, including on “web pages, blogs, and/or mass correspondence,” to Dr. Cirka. It also stipulated that if Dr. Cirka were to sue me due to a breach of the agreement, the loser in the litigation will pay the prevailing party’s legal fees.

Some banks have gone even farther than that dental contract, stipulating that the customer was responsible for all of the banks “losses, costs, and expenses” even if the customer wins the lawsuit. A 2012 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts (which I worked on while employed there) found that four of the 12 largest banks in the United States included these kind of “if you win, you lose” agreements.

Each of these provisions is about as unenforceable as the gaming company’s claim on your soul, but the legality of the language only matters if a customer actually plans to contest the contract in front of a judge. A suited representative from the company saying, “You did sign” can have a chilling effect on victims, who back away from a dispute and never learn that the provisions would have been voided. Read More…

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How to Fix the Census’s Obamacare Errors

Can you cook the books by using more accurate statistics?

That’s the question hanging over the Obama administration, now that the Census bureau has decided to change the way it assesses the number of Americans without insurance in the middle of the Obamacare rollout.

The basic problem the Census has been struggling with is how, exactly, to define “Americans without insurance.” If you ask your survey respondents “Do you currently have health insurance?” the percentage answering “No” will be a lot lower than the number of people who would say “No” to “Have you been uninsured at any point in the last year?” If you change your question to “Were you uninsured for all of last year?” the “Nos” will plunge accordingly.

The Census’s Continuing Population Survey has struggled for years with the phrasing of this question, and, when compared to other surveys of insurance coverage, has persistently overestimated the number of Americans without insurance. However, its numbers have still been commonly used, since CPS is the only survey that produces state-by-state insurance numbers across the nation.

The Census bureau did the right thing and has been investigating how to improve the accuracy of their numbers. Yuval Levin describes one of the error checks the CPS ran, and the surprising results.

In 2000, for instance, the CPS supplement introduced a simple verification question: If people had answered “no” when presented with a list of possible options for different kinds of insurance coverage on the questionnaire, then the interviewer, rather than just note them as uninsured, would say “So does this mean I should record you as uninsured?” They found that an amazing 8 percent of respondents answered “no,” and only in the wake of this verification question (which, for those who answered in the negative, was followed again by a list of insurance options) reported that they were in fact insured.

The CPS has finally found a new question, that they trust to produce reliable data, but, since they’re switching over just as Obamacare goes into effect, the methodological change may obscure the effects of Obama’s signature legislation.  As reported in the New York Times:

In the test last year, the percentage of people without health insurance was 10.6 percent when interviewers used the new questionnaire, compared with 12.5 percent using the old version. Researchers said that they had found a similar pattern in the data for different age, race and ethnic groups.

But Ezra Klein of Vox isn’t worried that the changes in the survey will make it impossible to measure the impact of the Affordable Care Act. According to Klein, the CPS changed their methodology just in time.

Politics aside, there’s a technocratic logic to this timing. The Census Bureau’s change begins with data for 2013 — meaning it starts before Obamacare does. By making the switch in 2013, there’ll be a baseline to compare obamacare to, and that baseline won’t fall apart in year two or three or four.

Unfortunately, a baseline data point is a lot less valuable than a baseline trend. The test for Obamacare isn’t just if it brings the numbers of the uninsured down, but if the new policies cause more people to sign up faster than historical data would predict. The 2013 datapoint may be a baseline measurement of coverage, but it can’t serve as a baseline for the changing trend of coverage.

The ideal solution might have been to run both questions, the old and the new, in parallel on the CPS for a period of five to 10 years. Instead of posing the improved question to all respondents, the Census employees could randomize assignments, so that a third to a half of all those surveyed answered the old, biased question, while the rest answered the new, improved question. Read More…

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McArdle’s Guide to Failing Well

In The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle, a columnist with Bloomberg View, makes a compelling case that America has failed to find a way to cope with setbacks and upheavals. McArdle draws on business case studies, academic research, and, for perspective, anecdotes from her own life to identify the individual and institutional barriers to bouncing back.

She looks at high school students terrified of taking challenging classes, for fear that a B will scupper their chances at college, the inertia and fear that lead GM to delay their inevitable restructuring, and her own tumultuous attempts to restart a relationship with an old flame rather than admit defeat. In each of these cases, a bad relationship with failure has enormous costs, even before the failure has occurred. If failure is always catastrophic, we’ll try to protect ourselves by taking minimal risk and innovating as little as possible.

But, in Hawaii, she finds a failure success story in the Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. HOPE is a parole program that deals out small punishments reliably for every violation of parole. Most parole systems let minor infractions slide—due to negligence or overwork—until there’s a truly egregious problem, and the parolee is sent back to jail, sometimes for years.

The HOPE program gave former prisoners consequences to learn from, but made sure that a parolee could still recover from the initial penalties meted out. The reliability of the system helped parolees confidently anticipate the consequences of their choices. Prisoners randomly assigned to the HOPE program were three times less likely to have their probation revoked as those in the regular program. Jail time and drug use plunged as well; and, although increased oversight was more expensive, the state made the money back by not having to pay the costs of incarcerating these parolees.

But these reforms haven’t caught on in other states. McArdle hypothesizes that these parole reforms remain counterintuitive because of two cognitive biases: an overactive Agent Detection system and the the Just World hypothesis. Agent Detection refers to humans capacity to recognize other agents—creatures that are capable of having goals and pursuing them. It helps us distinguish the results of blind chance or impassive processes like the weather from actions that are the results of other humans’ choices. Pair that with the Just World theory, where most things happen according to some kind of fair plan, and it’s easy to see every instance of failure as the exposure of a secret fault in a rational actor, rather than the result of chance. Read More…

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Can’t Staunch a Heartbleed

If you’ve used the internet in the last two years, there’s a very good chance that your personal data has been exposed. Any website that you log in to is likely to have been compromised by Heartbleed, a serious bug in the way sites verify your secure connection.

When you visit a site that begins with “https://” or see a little padlock icon in your address bar, you’re supposed to be connecting securely. All information that you send to the site (password, text of emails, etc.) and that it sends to you (account numbers, client information, etc.) is encrypted, so someone can’t tell what you’re doing by just snooping on your internet connection.

The Heartbleed bug is potentially a lot more serious than the occasional security lapses that result in leaks of usernames and passwords or even the breach at Target that compromised over 40 million credit card numbers. Instead of one site exposing data, Heartbleed left a loophole in the protocol the majority of sites use to secure their users’ information.

OpenSSL, a protocol that handles all this encryption and decryption turns out to be broken, and has been leaving back doors for two years undetected. The Heartbleed bug works like a peephole into that stream of supposedly encrypted data. An attacker can’t browse your traffic at will, but they can keep peering in, seeing random snatches of whatever happens to be being transmitted at that moment.

That means malicious actors can spot your user name and password, as one tester did for Ars Technica, skimming login credentials from Yahoo Mail, but they might also pull in the full text of the email you’re sending. Heartbleed affected about two-thirds of all servers, and although a patch has been released, each website must fix the bug individually.

That means you shouldn’t rush to change your all passwords. Your bank or email or company may still have left the digital stable door open. You can check whether any particular website is broken using this tool, and, if you get the all-clear, make the change. But, although you can see which sites have been fixed, there’s no way to look up whether your own information has been skimmed.

There’s no easy undo button for this kind of insecurity. There’s no guarantee to cover your losses, like the fraud protection for Target customers. There’s no one to punish and no way to retroactively protect yourself.

Heartbleed is a reminder of the fragility of the complex systems that surround us and our own powerlessness to make ourselves safe from every kind of harm. It’s worth auditing our old failsafes, but the Heartbleed bug, like the iOS vulnerability revealed and fixed earlier this year may just be the collateral price we pay for the convenience of software.

There is no indication that this flaw was deliberate, like the NSA’s subversion of encryption tools, or negligently handled, like GM’s fatal ignition switches. We can work to increase oversight and try to build antifragility into our security systems, but, online and off, there’s a limit to our ability to “Do something!”

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Captain America Skips Politics, Stays Personal

Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios
Captain America: The Winter Soldier / Marvel Studios

This review contains spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Kevin Feige, the mastermind behind Marvel’s movies, said that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a chance to expand the range of comic book movies, since the sequel would really be “a ’70s political thriller masquerading as a big superhero movie.” But, despite the clear references to the overreach of the NSA’s surveillance state and the CIA’s unauthorized abuses, little in the movie treated man (or superman) as a political animal.

Although Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is warned by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that he should trust no one, the movie never forces the squeaky-clear hero into the same kind of suspicious attitude that characterizes his enemies.

The grand conspiracy isn’t revealed through an act of deduction or infiltration, but through the monologue of a very accommodating villain. When the organization that Rogers has served turns out to be tainted, there’s no attempt at investigation or truth and reconciliation. The heroes just leak all the classified files and disband S.H.I.E.L.D. altogether. And, when they infiltrate the base of their erstwhile allies, Captain America has a very simple heuristic for distinguishing friend from foe:

Falcon: How do we tell the good guys from the bad guys?

Captain America: If they’re shooting at you, they’re bad!

Charlie Jane Anders, reviewing the film for io9, argued that Captain America’s greatest power isn’t his superstrength or his shield, but his certainty.

[Y]ou reach a point where you realize that’s Captain America’s true superpower — he makes things simpler, for everybody. Everybody else in the movie changes, at least in part because of their connection to Steve Rogers. He’s a catalyst, as well as a leader. This film is simplistic because Steve Rogers’ worldview is simplistic. And if you only let him, Steve Rogers will allow you to live in his world where everything is black and white.

Usually, when Americans are characterized as thinking in black and white, it’s because we’ve divided the world or just our nation into “us” and “them” and are out to get rid of them as in President Bush’s statement, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”  But when Captain America divides the world into light and dark, he has more in common with John Winthrop, who referenced Matthew 5:14 to tell his fellow colonists that the eyes of the world are upon them, and they must shine out, as a city on a hill.

The forceful optimism that Captain America exemplifies is most moving when the stakes of the movie get lower. When Captain America faces his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, who has been transformed into the robotic Winter Soldier, he offer Barnes his weakness, not his strength. Rogers drops his shield and stops putting up a fight. He’s asking his friend to show mercy, instead of removing the choice, and it’s easy to for the audience to hear echoes of a Martin Luther King Jr. sermon, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”

That makes it all the stranger that, in order to make his way to Barnes, Captain America punches his way through approximately fifty mooks. Maybe he was carefully doing non-lethal damage, but, more likely, the film didn’t expect us to care, since it had already told us that all of Rogers’s antagonists were fanatics and Nazi-collaborators. There were limits to the movie’s mercies.

But Winter Soldier would have been a stronger film if it had taken a lesson from a different blockbuster franchise and admitted that “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters.” In order to be a political thriller, instead of an interpersonal one, we need to see how Cap’s idealism scales up.

What are the limitations on charity and compassion when it’s expressed through an institution, instead of an individual? What sacrifices can Rogers choose for himself, but not the nation? The Winter Soldier, with its simplistic plot, doesn’t have any serious critique of American policy, but Steve Rogers still offers a powerful call to small-scale heroism to the American people.

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