Friday, March 1, 2019

A Conspiracy to Debunk

On last Sunday's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver John Oliver spent most of the show discussing psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, etc. He did, as always, a fantastic job demonstrating why not only are these things simply not true (duh) they are actually harmful to people's healing process and financial situation. It's 21 minutes of fantastic TV and cannot recommend it highly enough.

The piece is, unsurprisingly, not going to convince a lot of people that psychics and mediums are frauds. Oliver is right that facts will not, by themselves, convince people to change their beliefs. If that were true things like the Discovery Institute (promoting the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design) or the many flat Earth conferences wouldn't exist. (There's an excellent YouTube video that does a very thorough job of discussing the recent explosion of flat Earth nonsense.) Heck, all the way back in 1925 Harry Houdini went around the country exposing psychics and seers as the frauds they were/are. Since the YouTube rabbit hole is now open there's a great bit from Drunk History that recreates one of these debunkings with the added benefit that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ropes Houdini into it.

Seances, psychics, remote viewing, etc. are part of a whole world of "powers" or "hidden knowledge" that "they" don't want "us" to know about. While there may not actually be more conspiracy theories than before it certainly seems like they spread faster and effect people's beliefs more than in the world before the internet. Proof of this could be easily be obtained by pointing at the President. Trump certainly loves conspiracy theories (and loves inventing them). The Los Angeles Times editorial board actually named one of it's articles on Trump "Conspiracy Theorist in Chief".

Let's try a little experiment in "Who Said It?":

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.
Sounds like something Trump might say, right? Well, it wasn't him (rather obvious given the fact that the sentence contains more than five words). It was another conspiratorial nut: Joseph McCarthy, U.S. Senator and crackpot. He said this all the way back in 1951. Historian Richard Hofstader uses McCarthy's words to bring up-to-date (in 1964) the conspiratorial tendencies of Americans that have existed since the early republic.

As Hofstader writes

But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.
In other words this strain of thought has been apart of all Americans since, at least, the founding of the country. It is also worth pointing out that Hofstader would not have been at all surprised that those with left-wing beliefs would believe that the U.S. invasion of Iraq after 9/11 was for the profit of oil companies, that the government purposefully flooded New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, or that GMOs are unsafe to eat.

In his recent book Fantasyland Kurt Andersen also traces the history of America's beliefs in the conspiratorial or pseudo-scientific and suggest that it is American's individuality that engenders this type of thinking. Another recent book, The Money Cult by Chris Lehmann, makes a similar argument in how the believe-anything-individuality of some sects of Protestant dissenters lead to the creation of a whole new form of religion (this one based on capitalism). The two works note that since colonial times Americans have a sort of "believe what you want" approach to religion, science, and the world generally.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that if his "neighbour" believed that "there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." This isn't entirely true because as Oliver, Andersen, and Lehmann all make abundantly clear believe in these things can often lead to financial exploitation, societal harm, and a disbelief in science.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Social Media Confidence Men (and Women)

There are currently not one but two new documentaries on the disastrous non-festival known as Frye Festival, one on Netflix (Fyre) and the other on Hulu (Fyre Fraud). The "festival" of course never took place and was a complete disaster for everyone involved. It also did a significant amount of damage to the Great Exuma island workers where the festival was supposed to take place. The reviews of the two documentaries (I haven't seen either one) have been interesting reads. New York magazine even has an article to help a person decide which documentary is right for them! The best part about these article is that a few of them do point out something very important (from the NY magazine piece): "Fyre Fraud goes a few steps further, not only placing the idea for the festival in a broader historical context but acknowledging the parallels between McFarland and other high-profile grifters...". That last bit is very important. These social media "influences" are nothing but modern day confidence men and women.

First, the confidence man is more or less apart of capitalist society. In his book Wall Street: American's Dream Palace, historian Steven Fraser explains that the confidence man is "endemic to market society. First of all this is because market society rests on confidence: confidence that strangers can be relied upon to live up to agreements, made often at long distance and extending over long periods of time.." One of the key components of the confidence man hustle is trust. Of course, the confidence man betrays that trust, it is ruse to get at the mark. Fraser notes that the confidence man is "charming, glib, seductive, even charismatic, often sexy" thus lending further appeal to his pitch. "But", Fraser continues "what is most notable is that his trick depends on the willing collaboration of his victim, or mark. The mark indulges in an act of faith born out of cupidity: the belief that there is a way to fast money that skirts the rigors and renunciations of the work ethic." To put it simply: the mark is greedy and willingly believes what the confidence man is selling. Here's the problem: the confidence man is greedy too.

McFarland, the organizer of this absurd festival, originally started with an app that would allow rich common folk to rent a celebrity. Imagine having some as famous as Ja Rule come to your house to watch football and eat chili! Put that on Instagram and instantly be the envy of other bougie people. A short cut to fame, what could be more American? McFarland and his investors clearly knew how to market their nonsense to a certain subset of wealthy, status obsessed people. Could blame be placed on "America's Luxury-Obsessed Festival Industry"? Sure. Could you blame it on FOMO? Sure. Could you blame it on social media "influences" just being dopes? Sure. All of these critiques and explanations are equally valid and true, however, they don't get to the true core of the debacle which is that: McFarland (and those like him), his investors, companies that peddle over-hyped brand messages, and the people who fall for this nonsense are simply greedy. Greedy for money, fame, power, and the supposed happiness a million Instagram followers will bring.

Wall Street is a good example to bring up because Wall Street operates just like McFarland but on a massive scale. Another excellent documentary on the same subject occurred way back in 2005, it was called Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. The dot-com bubble, the greed, the hubris, it's all in there. The only difference is scale. It's worth revisiting that documentary because that mindset is no different than McFarland or the people who bought into his cockamamie festival. It's worth asking questions, like this Atlantic article does, "Can Bankers Behave?". The answer is, obviously, no they can't. They need to be regulated and punished if they commit crimes. What about social media "influences" who peddle productions, "hacks", or whatever other nonsense pops up in a Facebook feed? Yeah, they should be held accountable too. Social media can be a powerful tool, for good or ill, it's time people realized that and stopped believing that everything on Instagram is real life.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Friday, October 12, 2018

Forbidden Planet, Cold War, & Nuclear Fear

A professor came to me the other day and said that her students watched the excellent 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet after reading the Shakespeare play The Tempest. The movie is very loosely based on the play: technology substitutes for Prospero's magic ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to quote Arthur C. Clarke), Robby the Robot is Ariel and obey's Dr. Morbius, and the forbidden planet itself is Propero's island, etc. It's one of those fun exercises in film and literature that happen rather often. For example, the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut shares a lot of similarities with the Hawthorne shorty story "Young Goodman Brown". It happens across literature too, again with "Young Goodman Brown" but this time using the Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness is retold, set during the Vietnam War, in the film Apocalypse Now!. It's a fun little exercise, spotting the similarities in plot, setting, or theme between literature and film.

Apparently though, according to the professor, the students didn't seem to enjoy the movie! What a shame! It's such a great movie! And not great in the way that Plan 9 from Outer Space is great. No, Forbidden Planet works on two levels. The comparison with The Tempest is one level and the second is as a way of discussing the Cold War and fear of nuclear weapons.

Let's start with the year the film was released (1956) as it'll provide a good point on a timeline regarding the Cold War and nuclear annihilation.

Robert Oppenhimer was the "father" of the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project, during the Second World War. The traits of Oppenheimer and Morbius are closely related according to one film critic. It would make sense than that Morbius is aware of the infinite power of the Krell machine and facilities and is, therefore, wary of others obtaining such power. It's fitting that after witnessing the successful test of the first nuclear bomb Oppenheimer said "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Oppenheimer most definitely knew this weapon would defeat the Axis powers and, possibly, any other country that might find itself in a war with the U.S. Morbius too, finally, began to realize his own responsibility for the death of his crew mates. "Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!" Morbius screams as his Id monster tears through the once-believed-impossible-to-bust-down Krell doors.

It's also fitting that one of the often told stories regarding the first nuclear tests is that one of the scientists working on the bomb, Edward Teller, feared that detonating the bomb in the air would, basically, set the sky on fire. After some of the other scientists did some testing and calculations that scenario was deemed highly unlikely. But the point, of course, isn't what could or couldn't happen. No, the point is the fear of the unknown. After all, a nuclear bomb had never been detonated before. One scientist recalled later that while watching the test he fear the sky had been set on fire.

Not long after the U.S. defeated Japan, thanks in part to the dropping of two nuclear bombs, that the Soviet Union (and former U.S. ally) tested their own nuclear bomb in 1949. Not long after that, and in a speech delivered the same year Forbidden Planet was released, USSR premier Nikita Khrushchev promised to "bury" the capitalist nations. In 1957 the USSR would launch the first satellite, Sputnik, and prompt a wave of fear through the U.S.

In 1954 the U.S. conducted the Castle Bravo tests in the Bikini Atoll. A purposefully remote set of islands that was still, basically, irrecoverably damaged by the tests. It was with these tests the U.S. detonated one of the largest thermonuclear bombs ever. The tests were so destructive that it lead to a ban on surface testing after the public learned of the horrors and the havoc wrought on the Marshall Islanders. The bombs tested were significantly more powerful than those dropped on Japan during the Second World War and could, if used, lead to massive casualties from both the explosion and radiation fallout. In other words, they were even worse news.

There really wasn't a good way to describe the fear of nuclear annihilation until a 1962 book by Herman Kahn was released and gave rise to a new meaning to an old word: unthinkable. From there it only got worse with movies like Fail Safe, released in 1964, taking a very serious and dramatic look at the accidental use of nuclear weapons. Ironically, Fail Safe would be sort of overlooked by the much less serious (and financially successful) movie Dr. Strangelove. In the 1980s the extremely popular scientist and author Carl Sagan (along with other concerned scientists) wrote about the consequences of nuclear weapons and popularized the idea of "nuclear winter".

This timeline gives just a rough idea of how nuclear weapons came to slowly become part of Americans' everyday lives. In the 1950s of course all of this was in the future. But with the spread of Communism and the USSR's continuing tests of nuclear weapons it becomes clear that fears of nuclear destruction thanks to the Cold War had become part of the U.S.'s culture. Forbidden Planet's Id monster invades the quiet, average American household of Dr. Morbius and his daughter. Morbius had seen the terrible powerful of all that technology unleashed before on his crew mates of the Bellerophon. He knew he was the one who created the monster because he was the monster. Or at least his lustful, hateful subconscious was.

Knowing and experiencing all of this leads Dr. Morbius to tell the Leslie Nielsen's rescue mission that he "has come to the unalterable conclusion that man is unfit, as yet, to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power." This "limitless power" that Morbius wants kept out of mankind's grasp is powered by, wait for it, 9,200 thermonuclear reactors. You had to see that one coming. Oh, and the whole planet gets blown up at the end.

Side Notes
1. The movie also has an amazing poster that set the standard for sci-fi movie posters.
2. It stars a very young Leslie Nielsen, so young in fact that he doesn't have white hair!
3. Robby the Robot failing around and going "Morbius!" is unintentionally hilarious.
4. Robby the Robot chugging whiskey to replicate (I think like 50 gallons) of it is purposefully hilarious.
5. The movie and Anne Francis (Morbius's daughter Altaira) is in the chorus of the song "Science Fiction/Double Feature" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
6. Another movie about fear of nuclear annihilation this time with a nature focus: Godzilla.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Yes, Banned Books Week is Still Needed

Libraries this week are celebrating Banned Books Week. It's always fun to take a look at the books that were put on various banned lists (like To Kill a Mockingbird or Harry Potter) and get a chuckle out of how narrow-minded certain people/groups of people can be. Seriously, a book about a wizard promotes witchcraft? And I suppose Where the Wild Things Are promotes, ummm, roaring terrible roars?

There are always, of course, a few party poopers who want to rain on a librarian's celebration of advancing knowledge. This time it comes in the form of a poorly headlined, but not too terribly written article in the Washington Post, asking "Do we really still need Banned Books Week?". Ron Charles, the author of the article, wonders why librarians are focusing on "a problem that's largely confined to our repressive past". But, in the U.S., are problems ever really confined to the past? The legacy of racism or poverty (to take two examples) tends to last and last and last. Why wouldn't a problem like the repression of knowledge be just as applicable today as it was all those long years ago?

The answer is because suppressing knowledge and/or preventing others from reading about a clashing worldwide is often bad for certain groups of powerful people. In 1759 the Catholic church and King Louis XV of France banned Diderot's Encyclop├ędie and it literally had to be smuggled into France after it was printed in Switzerland. Bans like these would also lead to self-censorship. For example, Kate Chopin held back her short story "The Storm" from publication in 1899 "because she recognized it as too explicit and advanced for the period. Her description of passionate lovemaking would have been bad enough, but her endorsement of the adultery would have scandalized her readers." Of course, by "her readers" the critic means stodgy, uptight folks. It wasn't until 1969 that "The Storm" was published, 65 years after Chopin's death.

There are, of course, modern examples such as Florida Governor Rick Scott banning the phrase "global warming", the U.S. Department of Agriculture under Trump ordered this done as well. Forget about a whole book, Rick Scott won't even let state agencies use a phrase! What's next telling towns they can't plan for the consequences of global warming like sea level rise? Oh, that already happened in North Carolina in 2012.

The larger point is that banning books is a symptom of one of those never-ending problems that the U.S. seems to have an abundance of, in this case it isn't racism or poverty, but close-mindedness. Books are still certainly being challenged. Texas seems to have a particular problem with ones on U.S. history or biology. Celebrating Banned Books weeks doesn't mean just laughing about the foolish decisions made by our grouchy ancestors but realizing that suppressing ideas can have real world consequences.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Friday, September 14, 2018

Why IS College so Expensive?

It's back to school time which means it's time to start asking questions we already know the answer to. This time The Atlantic wants to know "Why is College in American so Expensive?" There's a lot of information in there about how in other countries college is very inexpensive or free. It's worth noting that the author isn't asking the right question "Can we make college in American Very Inexpensive or Free?" We know we can do that, but, apparently it isn't worth examining that question. That's foolish!

We know why college is so expensive and it's for the reason the author dismisses out of hand. College sports is a huge drain on resources that would normally go to teach. Take Rutgers for example, the football program lost $8.2 million in 2016-2017. The Rutgers athletic department as a whole lost $47.4 million. This means that Rutgers had to take $21.3 million from somewhere else in the budget to pay for a 78 to zip shellacking at the hands of Michigan (and in the process screw up a percentage off steak promo at Ruth Chris!).

The author leaves out completely the idea that wealth companies and individuals can pay more towards education. The U.S. is one of the lowest taxed developed nations in the world and this was before the passing of the 2017 tax bill that lowered taxes on businesses and the rich even further. Companies like Verizon have paid no taxes for an extended period of time and companies like General Motors not only didn't pay any taxes they received a credit of $1.9 billion in 2015. Then there are people that are just plain dopey, like this dude whose business got a tax credit of $260 million in 2014 from former NJ governor Chris Christie. There seems to be a couple hundred million in those numbers floating around for some scholarships, tutors, and classroom space.

As a side note to this rich people, when given the opportunity, will donate money to colleges but often to advance their own political-economic agenda.

Asking questions of how college became so expensive is being very late to the game. Heck, they shouldn't even be asking "How do we pay for this?". We know the answer to that one. The real question is are we prepared to do what is necessary to make it happen.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Friday, August 17, 2018

Dark Web "Thinkers"

A few months ago there was a Bari Weiss article in the New York Times where the reader would get to "Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web". I finally got around to reading it and it wasn't really at all about the dark web. The dark web, when being used by a librarian, usually means the portion of the web that's very difficult to see or access. Oftentimes for a very specific reason like data security. So if Weiss had found some sort of intellectual movement being conducted on the 21st century version of some speakeasy internet salon I was interested. It turns out most of the "thinkers" can be pretty easily found either online, in-print, or even on that legacy platform known as TV.

In fact, Weiss was on Real Time with Bill Maher twice recently (May 18 and March 9). Actually, in double fact, Weiss, Jordan Peterson (April 20), and Ben Shapiro (June 29) were all on Real Time within the past few months. Sam Harris's books are ranked pretty highly on Amazon in their various categories and it's not like Joe Rogan is hard to find. He was the host of Fear Factor, come on. Heck, Peterson's book was #4 on Publisher's Weekly, #1 on Amazon, #2 on the Washington Post's non-fiction, and #4 on USA Today's lists. Again none of these people are actually difficult to find.

My guess the reason they're "dark" is because their "thinking" is outside the mainstream. Again I was hoping for more than Weiss could deliver. It's the usual standard stuff about identity politics being bad and, according to Weiss, all "are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness". Uh, dude, no they aren't. Here's Peterson Tweeting about slapping a critic (I could go on at length about Peterson but I'm not because I'll just worked up. People significantly smarter than I have analyzed his arguments and found them to be pretty lame.) Here's Shapiro civilly disagree with the movie Black Panther. Here's Shapiro saying that George Soros was a kapo for the Nazis. Here's Bari Weiss trying to get a Columbia University professor fired for disagreeing with her.

Ah ok I've found the darkness. Basically, it means, these "dark thinkers" purposefully say nasty/racist/sexist/mean things and if someone gets offended or upset, well, screw them! That's not really thinking, it's not even really being a provocateur it's being well, mean and dumb.

The article reminds me of another group of "dark" thinkers known as the "Dark Enlightenment". TechCrunch called them Neoreactionaries way back in 2013. Their "leader", if he can be called that, is Curtis Yarvin. A computer scientist by day and Mencius Moldbug by blog. His blog posts go all the way back to 2007. What's "fun" (I mean this sarcastically as their ideas are both horrible and terrible) is that their big thought is to basically bring back a monarchy and/or feudalism! Now there's some thinking! Another "great" (again sarcasm and disdain) is seasteading: the creation of permanent dwellings at sea! It's not super original (anyone can become royalty thanks to the Principality of Sealand) but hey, they're at least trying.

This post is, sort of, about the dark web and it seems like, until these thinkers think better thoughts, that it'd be better if their thinking took place on the real dark web.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Public Libraries are Kind of a Big Deal

Forbes recently managed to post a scalding hot take my an economics professor about how public libraries aren't very helpful and Amazon should be running them. Because, you know, Amazon does a great job running itself. The link to the Forbes piece "Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money" now gives a 404 error because, of not just the backlash, but even the editors at Forbes finally realized what an awful take it was. The article is archived here as a monument to human thought.

The actual piece is filled with the usual stuff of how private corporations can do things better. It's also pretty clear the author hasn't stepped inside of a library in, perhaps, his entire existence. For example, Mourdoukoutas the author of the piece, writes that

There was a time local libraries offered the local community lots of services in exchange for their tax money. They would bring books, magazines, and journals to the masses through a borrowing system. Residents could borrow any book they wanted, read it, and return it for someone else to read.
Last I checked libraries were still doing that. And they do it pretty cheaply as well. Just as an example the Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington state have a neat little calculator to help patrons figure out just how much in taxes they pay for libraries services. That's right, if the home is assessed for $800,00 that person is paying a whopping $376 in library taxes. If I did the math right that's 0.05%. That's about the same percent I'd have of dunking a basketball on a regulation height rim.

Anyway, I was reading a very interesting take on the take and I had a bit of a thought on it. Over at Current Affairs Nathan Robinson wrote an excellent piece on just how important libraries are. Robinson writes that
Extreme as this article may seem, it’s worryingly close to the political mainstream
He's completely correct. It reminds me of a book excerpt the Atlantic published back in January called "The World Might be Better Off Without College for Everyone". The author of that article excerpt/book, Bryan Caplan, is another economics professor who argues that, basically, it's pointless to spend tax payer dollars to send students to college because, basically, "From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects to the modern labor market." Because why would one want to read for subtle and subtext when one can just be told Orwell or Fitzgerald is useless?

It's all very rich and ironic coming from a professor who's got tenure at a public university. It's even richer and more ironic that Caplan is a fellow at the Koch brothers backed Mercatus Center. If this isn't a case of pulling up the ladder behind you on the way up I don't know what is.

This is all to say that whenever a boiling hot take like Caplan's or Mourdoukoutas's gets published it's a good idea to put the whole thing to the CRAAP Test. Most pieces of information will get dinged pretty badly by the last letter of the test: Purpose. What's the purpose of Caplan's book? To make a well informed case about the uselessness of a liberal arts degree? No. To further the agenda of corporate donors to the think tank and university he works at? That seems much more likely.

Of course, that's the rub: if everything is for sale, everything can be bought.

**All views in this post are the author's own and do NOT represent the views of Mercer County Community College**