Monthly Archives: January 2014

Welcome, Fresh Pressers! I love having you guys around! Here’s how good I feel about your dropping by:

(If you get this joke, you’re a biochemistry geek.) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If you’re new to the blog and you like what you see, check out my About page (top), follow me on Twitter or check out my Greatest Hits collection below. I update this page occasionally.

My Greatest Hits, In No Particular Order

Staring At The Sea
An autobiographical essay about the evolutionary history of whales.

The Thin, Red Line
Thoughts on the historical meaning of the Ghouta chemical attack in August of last year. One of the posts I’m most satisfied with (not least because I started writing it just a few hours after knowledge of the sarin attack came through) … and as far as I know it had not a single reader.

Obama Should Hear Us, Not Listen To Us
The last big post I did on the NSA situation

Good Tricks And Bad Jokes
The work of philosopher Daniel Dennett used to explore the nature of creativity and “your mom”-jokes.

Blowing Up These Sparks For Their Meagre Heat:
My tribute to the poet Seamus Heaney after he passed.

Is the West Overthinking The Syrian Dilemma?
Thoughts on a possible airstrike on Syria at the end of last summer.

Blood And Fire In Egypt, Hope and Faith In Egypt
What it means to have faith in Egypt. Written after the slaughter of protesters this summer.

Thoughts On Peace In An Air Raid
Things that pass through your mind when you find yourself endorsing a military action despite non-violent ideals.

Creature Comforts
Three lines of thinking on eating the flesh of dead animals.

De Pseudo-Profundis
My last Freshly Pressed post, a critique of Malcolm Gladwell.

Clear And Present Danger:
On the occasion of the death of Tom Clancy, I did some thinking about the recent history of American fear.

Olympus Has Fallen, If You Know What I Mean
I watched Olympus Has Fallen, so you don’t have to.

Don’t Forget America, This How You Made Me
On Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” video/performance art stunt


Why would someone walk across New Hampshire in January

I love the New Hampshire Rebellion Walk, a new project by the indefatigable and remarkably public-spirited activist Lawrence Lessig. He and a gang of “Rootstrikers” — I’ll explain the term in two shakes — are walking across New Hampshire (in January, for God’s sake) as part of a campaign for removing money from politics in the US.

Now, Lessig has written what I’m sure must be the definitive introduction to the problem of money in politics, Republic, Lost, and in it he proposes some really sensible policy measures which would probably quite simply do the trick of mostly getting money divorced from politics. As he says: we would probably entirely change our politics in a matter of “30 months, not 30 years”.

Lessig calls the people who are working on this issue Rootstrikers, after a wonderful passage in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” (Walden, of course, was another great civic activist.)

I like the idea of putting the body of the activist in play as part of their political work. It is a major part of the thinking of Martin Luther King and Gandhi (whom I spent quite a bit of time reading up on last year). There’s something magical about making a demand in an embodied way, bearing the consequences and the wear and tear of the action. It really adds moral force to the demand. We saw that In Tahrir Square, and on Wall Street, like we saw it in the segregated South and colonial India. And like we’re seeing it, in a really small-scale way, now. In New Hampshire. In January. It’s not a sit-in, and they aren’t getting arrested, but there’s still the sense of an escalation of the symbolic power of Lessig’s struggle.

Professor Lessig, contemplating something corrupt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Along the way, Lessig has been pushing two interesting ideas. The first is that of the 4 %:

I’ve been having fun with one particular shtick. Our most recent poll found 96% of Americans answered “important” or “very important” to the question: “How important is it to you that the influence of money in politics be reduced?” (68% “very important,” 28% “somewhat important”). So I’ve taken on the challenge of finding the 4%. We met a couple state rangers who had just policed an ice fishing pond. “Are you,” I asked him, “one of that 4%?” “Hell no,” he told me. “And you won’t find any of those people in New Hampshire.”

The second thing, based on the first thing, is the idea that the problem isn’t a lack of support, it’s a lack of belief that there’s something Americans can do about the problem.

There’s one thing I think I know after a week out here that I didn’t when I started this walk.

The thing I always wondered was why what ever pundit said about this issue seemed true: that people don’t care about it. “Care about it,” in the sense that they actually do something about it. That they don’t seems true.

This was a puzzle, for me, because as I’ve interacted with people, I’ve always been struck by the opposite: a yearning, almost passionate desire, that this problem be fixed. So is that just because of the peculiarities of the sorts I connect with? Or maybe just further proof of my winning personality?

But I realized as I thought through this along this walk that there’s two obvious reasons why people who care about something don’t do something about it. They either don’t care enough (the assumption of the pols) or they don’t think anything can be done. It seems clear to me now that it’s the second, not the first, that explains this issue.


This means the real work here is simple: give people a sense that change is possible. Show them how, make it seem manageable. Because if we could crack the 91%, we could free the energy needed to make this change happen.

I hope he gets some traction now. Lessig is right: this issue is the first issue. It’s what the US needs to fix first of all.

If you aren’t aware of this part of Lessig’s thinking, I think this TED talk he gave is probably the most concentrated introduction. (Incidentally, I think Lessig is really nervous and barely containing his emotion in that talk, which is interesting. Maybe he knows what a major audience he has.)

“Dear … NSA … I mean … ‘Mom'”

At some point, we need to start asking ourselves: what happens if privacy is actually dead? 

The Guardian is running a major, major revelation today that the NSA program Dishfire is gathering up, analysing and storing hundreds of millions of SMSs of foreign nationals every single day. It is “an untargeted sweep”, collecting, in a chilling quote from the Snowden documents,  “pretty much everything it can”. The implications are staggering:

On average, each day the NSA was able to extract:

• More than 5 million missed-call alerts, for use in contact-chaining analysis (working out someone’s social network from who they contact and when)
• Details of 1.6 million border crossings a day, from network roaming alerts
• More than 110,000 names, from electronic business cards, which also included the ability to extract and save images.
• Over 800,000 financial transactions, either through text-to-text payments or linking credit cards to phone users

The agency was also able to extract geolocation data from more than 76,000 text messages a day, including from “requests by people for route info” and “setting up meetings”. Other travel information was obtained from itinerary texts sent by travel companies, even including cancellations and delays to travel plans.


At some point we need to start asking what happens if privacy as we know it actually ends. At this point Facebook and the NSA seem to be executing a kind of two-pronged attack on privacy. Their massive, warping influences have completely altered the substance of our notion of privacy and personal freedom. The NSA attacks our privacy from without, burrowing so far into the structure of the modern world that at this point, the walls we surround ourselves with are too porous to be of any use.

Meanwhile, from within, Facebook and the other systems of sharing have been gradually numbing the will to privacy. Many people quite simply do not have an understanding of what privacy is or why it would be valuable anymore. I’m reminded of a poem by Edwin Muir I read a long time ago:

Oh then our maze of tunnelled stone
Grew thin and treacherous as air.
The cause was lost without a groan,
The famous citadel overthrown,
And all its secret galleries bare.

How can this shameful tale be told?
I will maintain until my death
We could do nothing, being sold;
Our only enemy was gold,
And we had no arms to fight it with.
(Edwin Muir, “The Castle”)

If our walls are thin and treacherous as air, if we’ve already lost our cause, then maybe we need to start wondering whether privacy as a concept retains coherence enough to be a value we can build our societies around. On that question, I think I want to make a couple of observations.

That doesn't look like an evil villain lair at all.

NSA Headquarters, Fort Meade Maryland

The first, and the one which I’ve actually only just come to, is that the NSA should be completely shut down. I was actually hoping for something less than that. I was hoping we could keep a system of signals intelligence for actual counter-terrorism work. But that won’t do. The agency has a reach and an anti-democratic agenda too deep to be believed. It has to be not just defanged, but entirely put out of business.

Something else will need to take its place, probably, but at this point the NSA is our enemy. While I am certain that the people who work there are good and highly skilled people with the best intentions, doing a lot of good work, the system itself is completely rotten, and the culture of mass surveillance that has developed in the system is profoundly unhealthy. This is highly impractical and to the tens of thousands of men and women who I hope lose their jobs, it will be a disaster. But, however unrealistic a desire this is, I believe it needs to happen, and fast. Dismantling this source of power and threat is the smart thing to do, and in a sense the only realistic answer to the threat it poses to our privacy.

Second, we need to acknowledge this: that information is power. We’ve heard that phrase often, but what does it mean?

In a democracy, decision making is a distributed process. The spread and management of information in the system is the currency of political power through which decisions get made. Think for instance about the power of the media to frame, influence and create the way we speak about things. Think about the way information gets to voters through media campaigns. Awareness and control over the information in a democracy is a source of power. Not just in the sense of being capable of revealing our secrets for nefarious motives, but in more profound and subtle ways. Through the voice in the head of the dissenters saying that someone might be watching, and more generally by being a system which can utterly regulate and influence the information architecture of the world.

Said more bluntly: the NSA has absolutely unbelievable power. They might not use it, but the existence of such a centralised power outside popular control in a political system in which the people are supposed to rule is intolerable.

The idea itself, of an institution with this kind of informational power, is profoundly undemocratic. It means that the inner thoughts of individuals and the members of the people are at any time completely exposed to the eyes of the government. This makes sharing of power impossible. When the state has the power to know the contents of your mind — in practice, the situation of today — then that creates an imbalance between the state and the people. While the NSA and the executive branch are at this point doing the people’s will — more or less (… less) — the fact that the government could at any point effectively win a war on the people makes the current situation intolerable. We need to design not just for the government we have, but for a government much less sensitive to the will of the people, a government much less invested in the idea of democracy. Having an institution like the NSA is like having a gun lying around in an unlocked house.

The stuff of modern life.

Third, and most importantly, I believe we need to reflect and have a global conversation on the very idea of privacy and what it means.

We need to reclaim some ideas which seem to have gotten lost.

The first is that the self is predicated upon the ability to be shielded from view and have private spaces. This is where we find out how we differ from other people, this is how individuality arises.

The second is that being unmediated, unconnected and unrecorded is a possibility that should remain open for us. We should be able to, however briefly, remove ourselves from the mediasphere and touch the stuff of life itself. The quality of unmediated life is something that I should never want to lose. However, I find it hard to verbalise that quality. It is entirely experiential. Having lost it once, I fear it might never come back, and that we might not even know what we had lost.

Third, that it is in privacy that many of our most rational opinions are formed, in which we come to terms with who we are divorced from our group and our interests. It is in the private space that the possibility opens up for reflection on what is for the good of the whole of our species or our world. Without it, that kind of thinking becomes not impossible, but harder to do.

Fourth, and most importantly, that privacy is the foundation of freedom. If we are not capable of being uninterfered with, unwatched and un-thought of, independence in the strong sense becomes effectively impossible.

Three interesting posts about internet pornography — and let me just say right off the bat that there is nothing in this post even remotely interesting if you’re looking to get that little, satisfying tingle in your dopamine receptors from reading about porn; I didn’t even include racy illustration photos because as it turns out, there’s a lot of that stuff freely available on the internet (go check it out, if that’s what you came for, I’ll wait) — and the statistical study of smutty viewing trends and may I just say it’s fascinating. And revealing! (Not revealing in that way, pervert.)

1. “Pornhub Data Shows 5 Surprising Trends in Americans’ Porn Habits“.

Is what it says on the package. (Not that kind of package. Stop it.) Takeaways: we are watching more porn, we are watching more and more of that moreness on our mobiles. We particularly like to jerk off when it’s cold out and on Mondays. (The last, presumably, because it’s the one day of the week we’re least likely to have plans after work, having just finished the weekend. Or because it’s the worst day of the week and we need comfort — and, apparently, busty Asian MILFs — to get over the gloominess.)

But the number one interesting fact here for me is that income inequality and education level seems to significantly affects porn viewing habits. (PornHub suggests that bandwidth issues might be causing the extra time on site, but surely not the extra pageviews, though?) If it really is the case that these are major factors, what is the thing that makes educated, better-off people watch less porn?

2.” Search Data Shows Us Just Who Likes What in Each Of the 50 States

Which is mostly a fun post, but also with one interesting data point: it seems that Republican states in the US watch more porn. If that’s true, then that’s a really interesting data point, which seems consistent with other factors like teen pregnancy, age of sexual debut, divorce etc. There’s some pretty convincing evidence that those factors are caused by income inequality and education inequality, so that’s a likely explanation here also, but there might be something else at play. Some cultural factor beyong inequality that links porn viewing to conservatism and religion.

3. “Pornhub Has Figured Out A Brilliant Way To Get Free Publicity

Tl;dr: This post was in effect just one big viral advertisement for Pornhub. Which was not my intention. D’oh.

Somewhere in Israel, there is a sculpture of Ariel Sharon, comatose, in his hospital bed. It is highly realistic, has open eyes and appears to breathe. It represents, according to the artist, the artificial life support of an untenable political body — the Israeli state. I wonder if it still maintains its mechanical breathing now, after Ariel Sharon stopped breathing and passed away from renal failure this afternoon.

That Ariel Sharon has finally died is a relief, of sorts. There something deeply inappropriate about a comatose manon life-support. I feel like the fact that he used to be a soldier deepens that feeling. Just as there is something deeply inappropriate about the persistence of a system of political injustice installed by the aftermath of another injustice.

So what can we take with us from the life of Ariel Sharon? He is a complicated figure. Looking back at the past eight years, he seems to have been dead for years already, so there’s a touch of hindsight already to evaluating his life. Passions have had eight years of cooling before he finally shuffled off.

When he died the first time, in 2006, my first thought was good riddance. But my anger, which I still hold, blends with sadness now. Now I think, first and foremost, that the word that springs to mind now is tragedy. In the original, Greek sense of the word. I see a man of tremendous talent and capability realising only on the brink of death that his life’s work, his enormous energy, has been spent pursuing evil ends.

He was a bold and talented military mind. And by all accounts he fought brilliantly in the wars that Israel had to fight in its founding years. But we need to say what he was and what he did: Ariel Sharon was a war criminal. His actions and inactions during the Shabra and Shatila massacres were pure, unadulterated crimes of war. Crimes against humanity. Thousands of civilian men, women and children were slaughtered because of his actions. Corpses strewn in the streets. Dogs picking at the bodies. An act of inhuman slaughter hung around his neck like an albatross.

And yet, despite his all to brief resignation, a career in public service and the public eye followed. It is a part of the greater, ongoing tragedy of Israel and Palestine that a man with hands completely drenched in blood could return to the center stage, but he did, powerfully supported by friends in the US and on the likudi right.

Shatila. The blood on Sharon’s hands.

And he continued to set Israel on the terrible path of confrontation, confinement and colonisation. He triggered the intifada with a kind of confrontational, school-boy bully delight. And he continued and amplified the onfoing confrontation that is a driver of untold misery today. It continues to create tremendous suffering for the Israelis and Palestinians both. Palestinians because they live under constant and bloody-handed repression. Israelis because it poisons the well of Israeli democracy, cripples the Israeli spirit, creates ingrown and horrific conflicts that will take generations to clear away.

Sharon seemed to be the consummate hawk, dedicated to burning his own country to the ground rather than giving an inch. Poised to become yet another in the line of terrible leaders that afflicts the Israeli population.

And then, suddenly, nearing what he did not know was the end of his waking life, he seemed to realise that his path did not go anywhere. That his actions were creating an unsustainable Israel. He was in charge of sawing off the branch he was sitting on. He changed his mind. Probably in some quite profound way.

Perhaps it was the question of legacy that suddenly moved closer. There is something about the end of a man’s life that sometimes brings the horizon of how history will remember you closer. He stopped caring about the everyday allegiances that got a man who shouldered the responsibility for a mass murder into public office. He seemed to want to try, he seemed to start the slow turning of the great wheel.

And in the last months of his life he showed tremendous political bravery. He reversed many of his earlier policies and started the confrontation with the settlers. He burned a lifetime of bridges.

Would he have kept it up? Would he have taken Israel where it needed to go? Probably not. But we’ll never know. He stroked out and landed in a coma amid the chaos of his final actions.

But, ultimately, it was too little, too late. That was the tragedy of Ariel Sharon. A man who has done tremendously bad things, caused untold misery, who only near the end realises the error of his ways, who begins to repair the damage, but dies before he can mend the fault. It’s a terrible story. Compounded by the fact that he was a criminal who evaded justice. A tragic story. One fitting to the greater, even more irreparable tragedy of the Israeli state.

Update: The best obituary so far is this one, in the New York Times. It tells us exactly how many lives he trampled on to get where he was, and how for a split second at the end, he seemed to understand what needed to be done:

Nine years later, Mr. Sharon didn’t even try to find excuses for his disregard for the loss of life on his way to the top. He ordered the forces invading Lebanon “to finish off” southern Beirut, where the Palestinian refugee camps and P.L.O. bases were located, and “raze it to the ground.” An Israeli weekly newspaper depicted him on the cover as a ruthless Viking trampling on Lebanon.


Yet he remained on the Ferris wheel for years, as a Knesset member for the Likud Party and as a cabinet minister — until February 2001, when, with Israelis desperate for a strong leader who could stop the violence and terrorism of the second Intifada, he defeated the incumbent prime minister, Ehud Barak.

And then he changed. As long as he was striving for power, Mr. Sharon had been a wild man, a mega-intriguer. When he reached the top, in the midst of a wave of suicide attacks that were wreaking havoc, Mr. Sharon was the right leader at the right time. He ordered that all the resources the defense establishment had developed in preparation for the next war should now be diverted to fighting terrorism.

Update 2: And this one, from Robert Fisk, reminds us even more thoroughly of the slaughter Sharon got done.

In the end, Sharon got away with it, even when it was proved that he had, the night before the Phalangists attacked the civilians of the camp, publicly blamed the Palestinians for the murder of their leader, President-elect Bashir Gemayel. Sharon told these ruthless men that the Palestinians had killed their beloved “chief”. Then he sent them in among the civilian sheep – and claimed later he could never have imagined what they would do in Chatila. Only years later was it proved that hundreds of Palestinians who survived the original massacre were interrogated by the Israelis and then handed back to the murderers to be slaughtered over the coming weeks.

So it is as a war criminal that Sharon will be known forever in the Arab world, through much of the Western world, in fact – save, of course, for the craven men in the White House and the State Department and the Blair Cabinet – as well as many leftist Israelis. Sabra and Chatila was a crime against humanity. Its dead counted more than half the fatalities of the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001. But the man who was responsible was a “man of peace”.

Martin Robbins, writing for Vice, writes a very colourful version of what is basically a really good and powerful summing-up of the state of modern atheism. It’s short, sharp and readable. The theme of it? Atheists: don’t be dicks. I particularly enjoyed his summing-up of the schisms of modern atheism: 

At the start of 2014 there are four broad – and overlapping – schisms in atheism, which can be summed up as: Dicks vs. Cowards, Islamophobes vs. More Cowards, Misogynists vs. Feminists and Americans vs. Europeans. We could also count Richard Dawkins’ Twitter Account vs. the Collective Sanity of the Internet, but that sort of falls under “all of the above”.

The War on Dicks goes back a few years, but things hardened considerably in the wake of talks byRebecca Watson and Phil Plait in 2010 and 2011, both titled “Don’t be a Dick” and making the controversial point that people generally shouldn’t be dicks. As Plait put it, how many of us changed our beliefs “because somebody screaming in your face called you an idiot, brain-damaged and a retard?”

This caused outrage in the dick community, many of whom identify with scepticism or atheism precisely because it allows them to act like complete pricks to people; based on the popular logic that it’s acceptable to be nasty as long as you’re right. Prominent dicks retaliated by declaring non-dicks to be “pussies” or cowards, who clearly lacked the steel-spined bravery it takes to join a few dozen people leaving angry comments on an obscure Creationist blog post that a famous author just linked everyone to.

Words to live by, dickheads. 

Sheila at Feministing points out that comedian Louis CK is a boon to the “domestic workers movement”, which I gather is the PC mafia term for full-time parents.

By picking on his kids — who, based on what papparazzi have shown us, he does seem to spend a lot of time with in his real life — Louis C.K.’s comedy reveals parenting as work, which is exactly what it is.

She goes on to quote this hilarious segment in which Louis CK goes on Conan O’Brien and does an “interview” which is basically just him doing standup for five minutes while Conan goes “mm-hmm?” and “then what?”

Louis C.K.: I got to spend it with my kids which, you know, yahoo. It’s like hey you’re employee of the month, mop up. It’s what I have to do, I have to be with my kids. <audience boos> Oh shut up, none of you have kids. Here’s the thing, parents never get to say that it’s hard. And it’s the hardest thing in the world.

Watch the whole thing:

I love this aspect of the show. How he completely messes with the traditional view of the father. He gets closer to the real, messed-up truth of the modern family. The unpredictability of it, the massive changes the parental role is passing through. Those of us who are trying to both have our families and eat them too — wait, have a career too, I meant have a career — are doing some really hard fucking work. For a lot of us, were either divorced — and single parents all deserve a gold medal, every last one of them — or we’re both working full-time or near-full-time jobs (this is the one that pertains to yours truly) while trying to manage a family and a new gender role.

I mean, it’s doable, mostly, but there should never be any doubt that it’s hard work. And I like that Feministing points this out. Because it really is one of those places where Louis CK shows himself to be one of the most thoughtful, interesting and real comedians out there. His shows and his series always maintain an intimate and powerful connection to lived experience. I think that’s where a big part of their power comes from.

One of the scenes that most illustrate this in Louie must be the infamous doll repair-scene in (I think) season 3 somewhere. This is just every single experience of having kids being practically difficult rolled up into one scene.