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Monthly Archives: October 2013

So, Rand Paul is plagiarizing Wikipedia entries in his speeches, reports The Rachel Maddow Show.

So, first off, this is obviously a bad sign in someone who wants to be president. But I want to draw attention to something which I don’t think is widely enough known:

Everything on Wikipedia is Creative Commons. Since 2009, the entirety of Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons is on a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license (CC-BY-SA).

What that means is that you can take entire Wikipedia entries and just do whatever you want with them, as long as you attribute Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons or whatever. So basically, Paul just had to say “… says Wikipedia” and he’d be safe. You also have to share your work under a sharealike license. But basically you can do what you want with the work. So for instance, I can let you know that Rand

Paul passed the certifying examination of the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1995, entitling him to describe himself for 10 years as a “board-certified” ophthalmologist. In 1992, the century-old American Board of Ophthalmology, which in 2010 listed 16,000 ophthalmologists on its rolls, had begun requiring physicians to recertify every 10 years; prior to that, no limits had been placed on duration of certification.[22] In 1997, in protest of the American Board of Ophthalmology’s decision to grandfather in older ophthalmologists and not require them to periodically recertify in order to maintain their status as board-certified practitioners, Paul, along with 200  other ophthalmologists formed the National Board of Ophthalmology to offer an alternative ophthalmology certification system.[23] The National Board of Ophthalmology was incorporated in 1999, but Paul allowed it to be dissolved in 2000 after failing to file required paperwork with the Kentucky Secretary of State‘s office for the organization to continue to operate. Paul later recreated the board in September 2005, three months before his original 10-year certification from the American Board of Ophthalmology lapsed.[18] Since then, Paul has been certified by the National Board of Ophthalmology, with himself as the organization’s president, his wife as vice-president, and his father-in-law as secretary.[22] The National Board of Ophthalmology is not recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, the American Medical Association,[22][24] or the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure.[25]

(Source: Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA)1

1. So, technically I absolutely did not have to write that because all that was fair use, but I probably should have noted the source anyway. Blah blah blah.

Here is a picture of Rand Paul looking presidential.

I’ll shift this picture to the right margin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)

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Russell Brand is peddling false idols in the marketplace. Beware his apathy-fueled and undemocratic spritual revolution on the cheap and go for the real, hard work of actual change instead. 

Jeremy Paxman vs. Russell Brand. Great TV. Riveting drama. There’s something utterly magnetic about Russell Brand’s combination of charisma, intelligence, bravura and sesquipedalianism. Something about the way he mingles insight with an utter inability to understand the constraints of reality reminds me of Oscar Wilde. And like Oscar Wilde, his unwillingness to accept the demands of the status quo on social change is both his greatest asset and his greatest weakness.

So Paxman, above, is interviewing Brand about the latest issue of New Statesman, which Brand edited. In it, Brand reveals a revolutionary streak, in a rambly, new agey, grossly unedited piece where he calls for a revolution, spiritual and political, to overthrow capitalism and the political class and institute … well, what follows is unclear, but it’s way better than what we have. Or so says Brand.

He also says that he has never voted and discourages voting. (It only legitimates the system blah blah blah.)

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So, coming from where I coming from, a card-carrying socialist, anti-establishment, pro-equality and egalitarian democracy and sharing many of Brand’s policy goals, such as they are, I still find Brand’s anti-politician rhetoric to be so painfully simplistic that it in itself seems to demonstrate that he doesn’t see the real problems of capitalism. A glib denunciation of a whole group of people, completely neglecting the fact that the social movements these politicians come from are just that: movements, classes, structures. He turns personal dislike of the political class into a political statement (and a lifestyle choice).

Cameron, Osborne, Boris, all of them lot, they went to the same schools and the same universities that have the same decor as the old buildings from which they now govern us. It’s not that they’re malevolent; it’s just that they’re irrelevant. Relics of an old notion, like Old Spice: it’s fine that it exists but no one should actually use it.

We are still led by blithering chimps, in razor-sharp suits, with razor-sharp lines, pimped and crimped by spin doctors and speech-writers. Well-groomed ape-men, superficially altered by post-Clintonian trends.

Well, no. Sure, some of them are blithering chimps in nice attire, but if you don’t see what politicans are, who they are, what they do … well, how can you fix a society if you don’t understand in what way exactly it’s broken? If you can’t understand in what way good men and women come to generate bad politics, you’re not nearly clever enough to be let near a revolution. If you can bring yourself to say that “Capitalism is not real; it is an idea”, then you don’t understand that ideas are real and that capitalism is way smarter than you are.

That’s why it’s so hard for us to do away with. It takes actual, you know, work, and thinking and more work. You don’t overthrow capitalism or genuinely make a difference by saying that “we must become different; make the tiny, longitudinal shift. Meditate, direct our love indiscriminately and our condemnation exclusively at those with power” — I swear, I’m not making this up — you do it by doing political work.

Revolution, featuring: boobs.

And can I just jump into the margin for a second to say that the one thing I find truly grating about Brand is how a major part of his schtick is that he’s not supposed to be smart and brilliant. He plays at being a dilettante when he’s not. That’s what all the long words are about, and the lines like “When I was asked to edit an issue of the New Statesman I said yes because it was a beautiful woman asking me.” O why, me, edit a magazine? But I’m just a co-me-dian. And then of course he does it smartly because he’s smart. And why shouldn’t he be? Being smart and being uneducated, a former junkie or a comedian are not mutually exclusive, as it turns out. And I can’t help but resent a little bit his constant assumption that I think he’s stupid.

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It occurrs to me that Brand reflects the romantic and revolutionary longings of his namesake in Ibsen’s Brand, which apparently is the Norwegian word for “fire” (meaning a firebrand in Norwegian is a fire-fire, but i digress). Like all good revolutionaries the Brands of this world burn to utterly reshape the way the people live. And they often have very little room for the people whose lives they want to change in their visions, and very little support among them. Neither Brand bother asking what people actually want, or bother reflecting on how best to achieve those goals. (And then one of them ends up buried under a glacier, let’s not tax the analogy.)

It is telling, in the Paxman interview, that our modern-day Brand sets out purely negative views of the coming utopia: not unsustainable, not unequal, not elitist. But you can’t build a society on negative terms. There are many sustainable and equal societies, but you need to know which one you’re aiming for in order to start progressing in the general direction of it. This is the point of the American sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s brilliant book Envisioning Real Utopias, an insightful discussion of how to identify things in our current world that seem like they would have a place in a real utopia and start moving society in that direction by expanding those things. It’s an insightful work of theory which Brand (Nordic or otherwise) would do well to read.

And it’s blindingly obvious that Russell Brand has no idea how to conduct the business of a revolution (especially, it seems, a peaceful one):

We now must live in reality, inner and outer. Consciousness itself must change. My optimism comes entirely from the knowledge that this total social shift is actually the shared responsibility of six billion individuals who ultimately have the same interests. Self-preservation and the survival of the planet. This is a better idea than the sustenance of an elite. The Indian teacher Yogananda said: “It doesn’t matter if a cave has been in darkness for 10,000 years or half an hour, once you light a match it is illuminated.” Like a tanker way off course due to an imperceptible navigational error at the offset we need only alter our inner longitude.

As the British writer and actually-an-activist George Monbiot once so fittingly wrote, in the introduction to his book The Age of Consent: “If you believe that slogans are a substitute for policies, or that if we all just love each other more, there’ll be a transformation of consciousness and no one will ever oppress other people again then I am wasting your time, and so are you.”

But still, this poster is pretty fucking funny, I have to give you that.

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“I don’t need the right from you, I don’t need the right from anybody, I’m taking it.” It’s a telling conclusion to the Paxman interview. And it demonstrates just how wrong Brand is. Because that’s the point he doesn’t get when he slags off voting:

He does need permission to change society in any deep way. Who does he need permission from? All of us. Because that’s what democracy is. And he’s not getting it from me, not while he wears scarves like that or says unbearably stupid things like

We require a change that is beyond the narrow, prescriptive parameters of the current debate, outside the fortress of our current system. A system predicated on aspects of our nature that are dangerous when systemic: greed, selfishness and fear. These are old, dead ideas. That’s why their business is conducted in archaic venues. Antiquated, elegant edifices, lined with oak and leather. We no longer have the luxury of tradition.

Oh, fuck off. Russell: Stability is not the same as tradition. Just because things happen in oaklined offices, doesn’t mean they’re bad. My old pharmacy had been in business for 250 years. Doesn’t mean medicine is bad for me. Change the politics, don’t throw democracy out the window. If you want to change society, run for public office, you twat. Build a coalition. Keep fighting for, keep speaking out for, social change, egalitarian politics, social equality and participatory sustainability. I (often) applaud your spokesmanship and I often respect your insights, your way with words and your funny.

But as someone who has actually been down in the trenches handing out leaflets and taking names, arguing at party conferences, at podiums and in back rooms, writing op-eds, discussing and negotiating and organising and communicating and organising some more and discussing some more: I resent your apathy dressed up as politics. I resent you presenting change as some lame, spiritual lifestyle choice. I resent the way you spit on those of us who are trying to make change real. And the reason I do is because you are not.

And until you start fighting for those things, for equality, egalitarianism and democracy, until you roll up the sleeves of your no doubt extremely expensive shirt and get up to your elbows in organising for change, like the rest of us plebs in the movement: please, for the love of God, cease with the whining.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

US foreign policy and diplomacy is taking a beating today. First, news broke from the Edward Snowden files that the USA has monitored the personal phones of 35 world leaders. (Surprisingly, there was little intelligence of value in the tapping, presumably b.c. of the formality of relations to world leaders, real shit being dealt with through back channels and such).

Secondly, the friendly terms of US-Pakistani relations over drone strikes, which has been presumed for a long time, is now exposed through reporting in the Washington Post.

Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.

The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.

This is most of all awkward for Pakistan, of course, as the country is publicly shamed both for its failure to have a monopoly on violence and for the failure of the ISI and the Pakistani police to deal with their disorder problems.

More importantly, for me at least, is that this shines a light on the US drone program. My own opposition to the drone program is very strong. While I recognize the difficult problems of dealing with the kind of enemy that international terrorism represents, the current system of attacks represents a basic violation of human rights, of customary law and international humanitarian law. I have a fairly long argument about this, which I don’t really have the energy to write out now. Maybe later.

I read the recent Amnesty report on drones this afternoon. I encourage everyone who thinks seriously about drones and the war on terror to engage with it. It is a sober, well-researched and undeniable argument which will do much better than me, in the meantime. You can read it here, along with several other documents. There is also a trailer for Jeremy Scahill’s documentary Dirty Wars, which I’m going off to watch now.

Banksy’s memorial piece for Robbo. Not how the “Flammable” sign becomes a vigil candle and the incorporation of Robbo’s original piece. Flickr/Nan Palmero (CC BY 2.0)

The blogger known as FEWbar made me aware of an absolutely wonderful feud between street artist Banksy and old-school underground graffiti artist King Robbo. A sort of friendly competition between two stages in the evolution of graffiti as an art form, two sets of values and two iterations of the same mode of expression used for different things.

The whole thing took place from 2009 to 2011 at the site of an early, defaced piece from the mid 80s by King Robbo. The archaeological relic of the mythic days of graffiti was lost in scrawls and tagged over by successive generations of appropriators. Along comes Banksy and makes a new work out of it, equal parts insult and homage. And a feud with the aging graffiti artist ensued, both redecorating the same piece.

Eventually, the battle ended up taking a tragic turn, with Robbo suffering a debilitating (and, one hopes, unrelated) head-injury, and a tremendously moving homage by Banksy was put up at the end of the game, seen above. Robbo sympathisers seem in the ensuing months to have defaced some of Banksy’s work with less intelligence than Robbo and Banksy brought to the game. I also think that Banksy definitely outclassed Robbo, but then, I’m an elitist snob.

The entire blow-by-blow can be seen here.

Every now and then, I check in on Clay Shirky. He’s a stellar thinker on journalism and new media. And the man never gave a boring talk. He’s one of the people who are plotting out a middle ground between the actual academic style of reasoning backed by research and agonistic discussion and the slightly glib, Gladwellian popular story-centred crossover writing which I criticised a few posts back.

I’m not going to comment extensively on this video, which is fairly recent except:

  1. To speculate that it seems to find him in the early stages of developing the schtick for what I assume is a lecture to promote a new book project for a mass-market paperbacky thing, like his two previous volumes Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. (And his books never sat entirely comfortably with me. His academic work and his essays seem more grounded.)
  2. To mention that what he’s describing in this video is a darwinistic process of accelerated design through rooting out failures by algorithmic selection. It’s evolution, basically. I’m seeing this everywhere these days, since I’m in the middle of Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, (of which more later except to say it comes about as highly recommended as anything I’ve read this year).

Two unrelated but worthwhile short reads in The Atlantic. First, in a recent post on my slow-onset, creeping, sorta-kinda vegetarianism (maybe, someday), I wrote:

After having actually seen a chicken farming factory or a slaughterhouse, it’s hard to square that unbelievable suffering and disrespect for the dignity of living things with the bland banality of McNuggets. And that disengagement between the shapelessness of the McNuggets and the actual, dead animal is vital to maintaining the industry that provides living things for consumption.

And lo and behold, it turns out a team of researchers just dissected two random chicken nuggets from fast food stores in the US. You know, for science. The results were … unappetizing:

“Chicken nuggets are mostly fat, and their name is a misnomer.” That is, “because the predominant components aren’t chicken.” At least, not in the sense that chicken implies meat (not fat and skin)

A conclusion that seems at odds with my own idea that maybe knowing how the McNugget is made would make it unappealing is this disheartening description of a Jamie Oliver show:

“When chicken is processed, there’s some chicken left on the bone,” deShazo—who also hosts a wellness program on the local public radio affiliate— explained. “You can actually vibrate that stuff off, and you get these chicken leftovers, and you can put it together, mix it up with other substances, and come out with a goo that you can fry and call a chicken nugget. It’s a combination of chicken, carbohydrates, and fats, and other substances that make it glue together. It’s almost like super glue that we’re eating. In some fast-food restaurants.”

Chef Jamie Oliver made nuggets that way a few years ago on his television show Food Revolutionin front of kids, chopping and blending a remnant carcass. The feckless children screamed, but still asked to eat the nuggets. “We’ve brainwashed our kids so brilliantly,” Oliver said, “that even though they know something is disgusting and gross, they’ll still eat it if it’s in that friendly little shape.”

Ick.

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And while I’m in the business of depressing you, here’s a thought: while you’re surfing the net, you’re also not doing useful stuff. Research has now looked at the stuff you are not doing while reading this:

Unsurprisingly, the time people spend on the computer “for leisure” has increased exponentially in the last few years. However, computer leisure still comprises a mere 13 minutes of the five hours of leisure time the average American has in the day.

Even so, this computer time has a notable impact, eating into things like sleep, work, travel, and household chores. For every minute that they spend lazing on the computer, Americans spend approximately 16 fewer seconds working, seven fewer seconds sleeping,  six fewer seconds traveling, four fewer seconds doing household chores, and three fewer seconds educating themselves. Although Wallsten can’t prove that more computer time causes less sleep, for instance, he concludes, “that online activities, even when free from monetary transactions, are not free from opportunity cost.”

I’m reminded of Clay Shirky’s concept of “cognitive surplus”, how people have started sinking leisure time into things that aren’t mindless entertainment and gin. I wonder at what scale our newfound cognitive surplus is being crowded out by Facebook.

Shirky’s shorter talk on the subject (there are longer versions + a book floating about out there), from TED three years back:

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Are more people doing philology than ever before, or are more people not doing philology than ever before? Surely there has never been such a proliferation of misattributed quotes anywhere. The internet is teeming with them. Wildly replicating predatory memes, infecting everyone with the wrongness.

Corey Robin, circa 2009. Photo: Albert Einstein

I frequently find a certain kind of quote on my friends’ Facebook pages, blogs or twitter feeds that are inspiring, heart-warming and pithy and attributed to, say, Nietzsche or Plato or Abraham Lincoln. And something about it rings my bells. Maybe it’s the fact that this heartwarming quote was said by men who had very little heat in, on or around their hearts; or maybe there was something stylistically wrong about it. Maybe the language was a little too self-helpy, a little too modern in its smugness and self-centeredness to have been written in the time of great ideologies and mass movements.

— Réne Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, p. 83

But fortunately, someone out there has been kind enough to make a taxonomy of the kinds of wrongness:

There are basically three kinds of Wrongly Attributed Statements. WAS I is an adaptation or composite of a statement or statements from someone or several people, who may or may not be famous. WAS II is a statement that was uttered, as is, by someone, often not famous, that has come to be widely attributed to someone else, invariably more famous. WAS III was never uttered by anyone, at least not that we know of. WAS III is not to be confused with those anonymous sayings you find in Bartlett’s. WAS III is an aperçu of metaphysically uncertain status—the witticism that wasn’t—hanging somewhere between ether and air, quoted but never attributed (at least not credibly) to anyone, not even to Anonymous.

Corey Robin

And although I always grit my teeth when someone attributes quotes to the wrong people, I have to admit that I think Robin has a more graceful, tolerant and democratic approach:

It’s precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—”When bad men combine, the good must associate”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

It’s good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.