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Archive for November 12th, 2008

The city of Belmont, California, recently passed a law that bans you from smoking in your own house if it shares a floor or ceiling with another apartment. So how far will smoking bans go, and how harmful really is second-hand smoke?

Watch this great documentary by the folks at Reason magazine where they take on such questions.

I hate the smell of cigarette smoke as much as anyone. However, as Nick Gillespie puts it, “You may like the nanny-state when it watches something you hate, but sooner or later politicians will go after something you like.” The same thing of course, was expressed decades ago in a different context by Martin Niemoller.

That is why there is no such thing as trivial nanny-stating. Whether it is helmet laws or smoking bans or drug laws, it is the same insidious principle and it needs to be opposed. But I am straying from the original point, which is — watch the video.

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A nice follow-up by Robin Hanson to his earlier post I had linked to:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin.

Indeed. Whether your views are simple and mainstream or whether you subscribe to some fringe philosophy such as libertarianism, it is always a sign of danger when your beliefs and conclusions are affected and (subconsciously) dictated by emotions derived from your identification. I guess the human psyche, by its very nature, is hopelessly susceptible to this kind of bias; the first step in fighting it is to realize that it exists and it is poisonous.

[Edit] Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying one should have no emotions associated with one’s beliefs. However, you need to be wary when your emotion is at least partially derived from loyalty to your group or your ideology; for it can then affect your reasoning ability when faced with a new issue. The pleasure of non-conformity should not get in the way of dispassionate analysis. See Robin’s last paragraph above, also see my comment below.

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Daniel Drezner, in a superb article, counters the view — fashionable of late — that the internet and the blogging phenomenon has led to a decline in the quality of public intellectualism.

The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that “the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ‘gotcha’ commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible.” David Frum complains that “the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are … absorbing.” David Brooks laments, “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

These comments, Drezner says, miss the point.

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

Drezner is right. The free market of ideas created by the internet does contain a great deal of low-quality noise; however, the very best blogs, quite often, provide both more variety and better analysis than the mainstream media and its salaried pundits. Furthermore, as Drezner points out, blogs play an important role in demystifying their subject. They provide thoughtful, quick critiques of mainstream works and are a powerful agent of quality control. In a sense, blogging and more conventional methods of intellectual discourse (such as books or papers) are complementary; each performs better in the presence of the other.

Above all, the low barrier of entry means that intellectualism in the internet age is no longer the sole province of those with a degree, but can be successfuly partaken by anyone with the knowledge, capability and intelligence. That’s a good thing.

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Andrew Sullivan — otherwise one of Obama’s strongest supporters — calls him out for not opposing Proposition 8 strongly enough:

The final analysis is pretty clear. There was a big overlap between new, largely black Obama voters and the forces for discrimination against gay married couples and our families.

The massive black turnout was the critical factor. And Obama’s refusal to take a firm stand in the last few weeks of the campaign was instrumental to its passage.

[…] Obama has always opposed marriage equality, even splitting with his own church on the issue. In California, he got his way.

Yes he did.

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