September 2010

A little while back there was some hubbub about Canada’s English-language proficiency test, possibly due to some very inaccurate reporting. While reading “Generations of Exclusion” I got to thinking about language assimilation & immigration. Answering some stock questions could lead to cheating, and personal evaluation could be subjective. It occurred to me that language should help to impart information, and I recalled the trouble some people have had when calling outsourced call-centers. I propose that prospective immigrants be sent technical manuals (written in English). Federal employees will be required to phone them for tech support. If a prospective immigrant can’t set the men & women who serve Uncle Sam right, there are probably plenty of others who can. Before anyone interjects, this test will be necessary rather than sufficient for entry.

I saw acclaimed Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk speak last night in San Jose. He had much to say about the perception by the Muslim world of America’s goals (“cultural, social, economic and military domination”), the injustice of the occupation of Palestinians (“there will be a one-state solution, I fear”), and the hopelessness of the “AfPak” venture (“it’s a cliché but it’s true that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires”). (As an aside, it may very well be true that Afghanistan is a graveyard for empires, but perhaps this graveyard’s inhabitants lived a rich and full life?) All in all a pessimistic talk, but with a tinge of dark humor,  including an impersonation by Mr. Fisk of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to provide some levity. Fisk even thinks the crux of the problem is that the West no longer believes in anything while the Muslim world very much does, oddly paralleling a prominent conservative argument. (As for Fisk’s beliefs, he considers journalism his religion.) Though Fisk has defined government in unromantic terms – “it’s about power, not good and bad guys” – and calls for the dismantling of the American imperial apparatus, he also suggests Western nations send their doctors, engineers and teachers abroad instead of soldiers, making him more a secular humanist progressive than libertarian.

Fisk began his talk with an engaging spiel about the abuse of language in mainstream journalism. “Collateral damage,” “road maps,” “peace process,” and all the rest. In each of these cases, he notes the implicit and inappropriate analogies, arguing that the language distracts from the true nature of what’s going on. I’m not convinced this goes as far as he thinks in misleading the thoughts of news consumers, though given his status as wordsmith I’m not surprised he’s so sensitive to it. I’m certain readers, e.g. of the Wall St. Journal, who come across the term “collateral damage” know just what that means (if they’re reading an article on such a subject it’s likely a self selection process is in the works which involves familiarity with the term to begin with) – they just don’t let it shake either their conviction that the war is necessary or, less confidently, “man, war is hell.” In either case, the compartmentalization of war in the mind’s file room, as something requiring a different set of language than that which applies to a local town killing spree, precedes the actual makeup of that language.

I’ve only recently looked into the subject, but Fisk sounds like he’s implicitly adopting the views of linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who believed, essentially, that language determined thought. John McWhorter tackles the recent uptick (“uptick” being another word Fisk skewers, incidentally, as in “uptick in violence”) in interest in Whorf’s views here. McWhorter writes:

Americans have a plethora of terms referring to psychology–complex, affect, syndrome, superego, compensation. Yet who would say that it’s the English language that makes us sensitive to these things?

In Fisk’s case, I doubt it’s the use of “collateral damage” that spurs insensitivity to foreign innocents’ death, but rather vice-versa. If peace and justice activists had their druthers, and “collateral damage” was replaced with e.g. “civilian deaths,” it’d make little difference in the anti-war effort (though it might make temporary waves). You’d soon hear cue-providing elites privy to the “biased” reporting of “anti-American” newspapers lambasting the language of “moral equivalence.”

The foreword to “Generations of Exclusion” is written by Joan Moore, who was associate director of UCLA’s Mexican American Study Project, which surveyed spanish-surnamed whites (most of them not first-generation immigrants themselves) in San Antonio and Los Angeles in 1965. Moore makes clear that there was a political impetus behind the project, seeking to change the perception of “hispanics” (not yet counted as a census category) or “Chicanos” (as she, but not Telles & Ortiz, refers to them) from quaint rural “ethnics” to a marginalized urban racial “minority”, tying them into the black-focused civil rights struggle and Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Part of their efforts were in the face of many Chicanos themselves, she notes that in San Antonio they were “proudly Latin Americans” and advertised their restaurants as serving “Spanish” fare. “Local euphemisms” is her term for it, too closely associated with a middle class white image of respectability. The embrace by young militants of the “Chicano” label “embarrassed” many of the older generation, but sometimes you have to embarrass a few fogies. I lay that out not to spark discussion of how they should be classified or perceived, but to indicate how invested the researchers were in the results of their project. Boxes of records containing the surveys were uncovered behind a bookcase in 1993, and the study became longitudinal. Much had changed over the decades, and many of Moore’s predictions about the fate of the net generations were falsified and she was “deeply disturbed” by the findings. Unlike Robert Putnam, the researchers did not sit on their findings. Nobody can blame a cabal of academics of fabricating global warming intergenerational mobility data. But almost nobody is aware of it either. In popular discourse these findings aren’t even used, much less abused. Perhaps for all the debate over immigration, people just don’t care. The People are to blame.

A little while back Matthew Yglesias proposed letting in lots of immigrants to Detroit (and restricting them from entering the rest of the U.S) rather than demolishing the empty parts. From my perspective that plan has the great feature that I don’t live there and don’t see any upside to preserving Detroit. But there are a lot of very poor people around the world and it might be hard to contain all of them. Better to focus on a small population who are a real pain in their current location and have no worthwhile future there. Palestine! Detroit is already full of Arab Muslims and relatively speaking they probably improve the place by their presence. What seems to be the obvious solution to the Palestine problem of just reverting to the status quo ante-bellum by giving the area back to Egypt & Jordan is a non-starter for reasons rarely discussed, but I imagine have to do with those respective governments not wanting to deal with all those Palestinians. I don’t know exactly how many of them there are, so perhaps they might not fit in Detroit. Fine, all of Michigan seems screwed from what I hear, so we can make that the limits of their roaming (the upper-peninsula will go to Wisconsin, where it always belonged, and remain available for deer-hunting). In order to immigrate they’ll all have to agree to a charter that ensures they live boring lives that don’t bother us, but since their current home is deemed an “open-air prison” currently, why wouldn’t most sign up? With a small enough remainder, Egypt & Jordan (and perhaps even Israel) might be able to handle the sub-critical mass left over. Mark Kleiman Jonathan Zasloff thinks Sari Nusseibeh is some wise man, so they can make him Daley of Paliland. And if it turns out he’s no good, hire a successful manager from elsewhere: Sheikh Mo. I realize that contentious issues like this don’t get resolved when a genius like me proposes a perfect solution, because you idiots want symbolic sacrifices. Here goes: nobody gets the land they were living on (again, this has the great feature that I don’t live there). A permanent no-go zone. A monument to our inability to live peaceably side-by-side and remembrance of how much attention was wasted on that miserable strip of ground. In honor of America’s sacrifice of Michigan we will solemnly be exempted from ever giving a shit about the Middle East again.

Now, does anyone have any miserable rust-belt cities to resolve Kashmir? Flint maybe?

A while back at LessWrong someone cited the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. Shockingly enough, it was published well after Barry Marshall proved that bacteria caused ulcers. It was responded that the scientific consensus is that stress is still a significant cause. I gave it no more thought until I came across an interview with Barry Marshall. He says there was never any good evidence that stress was a cause, and plenty that it makes no difference. Furthermore, he thinks there is scanty evidence for a variety of things attributed to stress. “Everything that’s supposedly caused by stress, I tell people there’s a Nobel Prize there if you find out the real cause.”

His thinking seems in line with Paul Ewald (and Greg Cochran). On that note, schizophrenia (whatever that is) may be caused by a pre-natal infection. Hat-tip to Jason Malloy’s feed at gnxp.

From David W. Anthony’s “The Horse, the Wheel and Language”:
A good example of how an open social system can encourage recruitment and language shift, cited long ago by Mallory, was described by Frederik Barth in eastern Afghanistan. Among the Pathans (today usually called Pashtun) on the Kandahar plateau, status depended on agricultural surpluses that came from circumscribed river-bottom fields. Pathan landowners competed fro power in local councils (jirga) where no man admitted to being subservient and all appeals were phrased as requests among equals. The Baluch, a neighboring ethnic group, lived in the arid mountains and were, of necessity, pastoral herders. Although poor, the Baluch had an openly hierarchical political system, unlike the Pathan. The Pathan had more weapons than the Baluch, more people, more wealth, and generally more power and status. Yet, at the Baluch-Pathan frontier, many dispossessed Pathans crossed over to a new life as clients of Baluchi chiefs. Because Pathan status was tied to land ownership, Pathans who had lost their land in feuds were doomed to menial and peripheral lives. But Baluchi status was linked to herds, which could grow rapidly if the herder was lucky; and to political alliances, not to land. All Baluchi chiefs were the clients of more powerful chiefs, up to the office of sardar, the highest Baluchi authority, who himself owed allegiance to the khan of Kalat. Among the Baluch there was no shame in being the client of a powerful chief, and the possibilities for rapid economic and political improvement were great. So, in a situation of chronic low-level warfare ta the Pathan-Baluch frontier, former agricultural refugees tended to flow toward the pastoral Baluch, and the Baluchi language thus gained new speakers. Chronic tribal warfare might generally favor pastoral over sedentary economies as herds can be defended by moving them, whereas agricultural fields are an immobile target.

The Cold Equations links to some examples of right-wing criminality you may not have heard of. Felix Salmon measures how they stack up in Europe. As suggested on the Wire, some affirmative action may be in order.

Yes I chose an incendiary title. How could I not?

“Let me allow myself at this point the luxury of expressing a strong personal opinion, which would certainly be contested vigorously by some of my colleagues. It seems to me that the many-worlds interpretation is nothing more than a verbal placebo, which gives the superficial impression of solving the problem at the cost of totally devaluing the concepts central to it, in particular, the concept of ‘reality’. When it is said that the ‘other worlds’ are ‘equally real’, it seems to me that the words have become uprooted from the context which defines their meaning and have been allowed to float freely in interstellar space, so to speak, quite literally meaningless. I believe that our descendants two hundred years from now will have difficulty understanding how a distinguished group of scientists of the late twentieth century, albeit still a minority, could ever for a moment have embraced a solution which is such manifest philosophical nonsense.”

Mark Kleiman was asked why European countries have abolished the death penalty while America and Asia continue to use it. His theory was that “a Westminster system gives well-educated civil servants more power, and the well-educated mostly dislike capital punishment”. The second part of that theory seemed testable, so I checked it out in the GSS, running CAPPUN (supporting the death penalty for murderers is coded as 1, opposing it is 2) by EDUC (years of education). First the aggregate statistics.

Summary Statistics
Eta* = .11 Gamma = .02 Rao-Scott-P: F(20,3820) = 17.89 (p= 0.00)
R = .00 Tau-b = .01 Rao-Scott-LR: F(20,3820) = 17.19 (p= 0.00)
Somers’ d* = .01 Tau-c = .01 Chisq-P(20) = 498.91
Chisq-LR(20) = 479.30
*Row variable treated as the dependent variable.

Then broken down by years of education. (more…)

According to Eric Crampton. And via Ilkka, an armed robber writes about his two years in a Michigan prison. Chicago jails must be much better, since poor people deliberately go there in winter.

I know it had been going downhill for a while, but shit. I’m not drunk and it’s not April 1st either.

Inspired by Chad Orzel’s complaint that there was little popularization of solid-state physics, I picked up the only book accessible to laymen I could find which contains any discussion of it: A. J. Leggett’s “The Problems of Physics”. After going through the one chapter (which said it involves complicated emergent macrostate behavior not easily deduced from the fundamentals, along the lines of Robert Laughlin‘s book) on the subject I went back to the beginning to read about stuff I’ve actually heard about elsewhere. I got confused during the discussion of beta decay. It said a decaying neutron gave off an antineutrino, which Murray Gell-Man certainly didn’t mention in his explanation from “The Quark and the Jaguar”. I’m having trouble understanding what makes something an “antineutrino” rather than a regular neutrino since they have no electrical charge or “color”, which is what makes them immune to the electromagnetic and strong forces in the first place. Leggett also said it was a surprise that protons could decay, but when I started looking things up on Wikipedia that decay is apparently how they were first experimentally observed! The Wikipedia page also mentions that the neutrinos involved were later discovered to be antineutrinos, although how they can tell the difference is beyond me. Wikipedia did fortunately explain how they obtained their experimental measurement of the weak coupling constant: through the time it takes a muon to decay. Sure, whatever. And I had assumed it was through actually measuring energies or a balance of forces.

A while back I asked the advanced physics forum why the weak interaction doesn’t decay quadratically like gravity & electromagnetism. They gave me an answer, but checking know the equations used have disappeared. So I am copying their answer in the post below. (more…)

Even the scummiest and most interested of companies don’t buy political favors. And how voters are personally doing is much less correlated with their vote than how they think the country is doing. I don’t have links, but it was also reported in “Freakonomics” that campaign expenditures have little to do with the success of a candidate (as evidenced by self-funded wealthy candidates). John Lott reported in “Freedomnomics” that whether a legislator is retiring and needs to raise campaign funds has no detectable effect on how he actually votes. I forget though if he examined the possible influence of angling for a post-electoral career the lobbying interest groups.

You can find lots of graphs showing political contributions by corporations at Ideological Cartography. You can look up individual donations by employer at

UPDATE: More from the monkey cage. Public concerns about the economy leads that of influential newspapers. Count this as a point against Mencius Moldbug and Mark Kleiman on the power of the fourth estate?
UPDATE 2: Income inequality does not seem to have much effect on perceptions of the economy either.

I found this in Anthony Gregory’s piece at LRC, “The Persistence of Red-State Fascism“:

When Ann Coulter expresses skepticism toward Afghanistan, it is the function of a watered-down and vulgar America First sentiment. But America First is only a bulwark for peace when it’s radical, consistent and coupled with a concern for the dignity and humanity of foreign victims of the regime. If the only reason to oppose war is it’s a waste of American blood and money, there will be no stopping the next Republican president from unleashing even more death and destruction than did Bush, so long as it can be excused in the name of “national security.” For Americans to embrace peace, they must accept the notion that foreigners have all the natural rights Americans do, and dropping bombs on them while they sit peacefully in their homes and neighborhoods is every bit as barbaric, monstrous and murderous as 9/11 or any other terrorist act.

But those most skeptical of the notion of a sincere national security rationale typically link their arguments to the inherent wastefulness of government, its nominally private sector counterparts, and to some degree the dynamics of mass media and special interests. I also don’t agree that for Americans to embrace peace, they must attribute natural rights to foreigners. It seems this is part of what got us into this problem to begin with. It’s because Americans are so damned concerned about what is happening with women, gays, Christians or whomever in country X that they feel the need to intervene abroad. Three cheers for indifference. Unless Gregory has some good evidence that this other-oriented stance is going to transform in the particular Rothbardian direction he prefers, I suggest this empathy stance be downplayed. It’s too easy for its premise – the concern for the safety and freedoms of far off strangers – to be co-opted for pernicious, meddling ends.

Related material: Mondoweiss.

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