SocraticGadfly: 3/25/12 - 4/1/12

March 31, 2012

#GoldmanSachs, Village Voice, prostitution, disgust

OK, multiple disgust revealed in this Nick Kristof column.

The first disgust is that Goldman Sachs is a partial owner of the alleged sex trafficking website Backpage. Not that surprising, whether or not, per Kristof, top brass at Goddam Sachs knows about this latest issue. (Contra Saint Nick, having seen Goddam Sachs cybersquat on solar energy public land sites, sell against its own major investors, etc., I'm NOT inclined to give its top brass the benefit of the doubt.

The second disgust is that Village Voice Media owns part of this site. That said, given that VVM's national group of alt-weeklies (including, here in Tejas, the Dallas Observer and Austin Chronicle -- I can't remember what Houston's alt-weekly is) were making money off escort services, albeit, I hope, ones that didn't dip into actual trafficking, years ago, long before the rise of the Net made such things more private/discreet. Again, disgusting but not surprising. Disgusting also, to the degree that such places are exploitative (and I'm not a "gender feminist," so I'm not going to tar with a broad brush) an allegedly liberal site like VVM was into them.

The third disgust? That Goddam Sachs is a partial owner of the allegedly liberal Village Voice Media.

What if some editorialist on staff at one of the stable of VVM products decided to go all Matt Taibbi and rag on Sachs week after week? How long would she or he last? And, will anybody try it?

The value of agnosticism

Reading elsewhere here (from a "skeptic") that "agnosticism has no intellectual merit"? Tosh. Certainly if we're talking about a limited agnosticism, such as whether or not science will "solve the mystery of consciousness," it has plenty of merit. Even if we're talking about "big ticket" agnosticism, the existence of a deity, it has merit, and not just as a halfway house. Both religious believers and a certain class of atheists who insist on absolutes, including absolute certainty, and cannot live in a world of grays, are mistaken, in my opinion.
Second, it’s ironic, or worse, for a skeptic, even if in the breed of modern self-proclaimed “scientific skeptics,” to reject the value of agnosticism. That said, this is another reason why I’ve said before, and will say again now, that modern “scientific skeptics” need to actually familiarize themselves with the philosophy of Skepticism.
Third, to claim that Arcesilaus never advocated such a thoroughgoing agnosticism, or skepticism, as to be skeptical even of skepticism, is not true. Such versions of agnosticism were advocated. And, no, that’s not a self-defeating concept, no more than is the pithier “question everything.” First, the agnosticism proposed is a state of mind, not a state of being. Related to that, no advocacy is made for the permancy of agnosticism in every instance in life. And, related to that, Arcesilaus’ skepticism is probabilistic, anticipating in some way Bayes’ theorum, perhaps.
Fourth, this doesn’t even consider Pyrrhonic skepticism, which is actually even more necessary today. Pyrrho advocated what he called “knowledgeable ignorance,” or, in more detail, taking a deliberate stance of non-certainty against dogmatism, whatever its form or stripe.
And, especially as some “scientific skeptics” are also “Gnu “Atheists” or approach them in mind, that’s the biggest reason of all “scientific skeptics” actually need to learn more about the roots of Skepticism, the philosophy.
“Darkness,” metaphorically speaking, can produce more light than heat can.
And, per the likes of a Scott Atran, the desire for certainty shown by both true religious believers and true atheists, or "scientific skeptics," are two sides of the same coin -- more general human mental patterns, such as causation-inferrers and pattern-inferrers, put to the service of ideologies, dogmas and isms for which they had never evolved (since evolution doesn't have Aristotelian final causes.

March 30, 2012

#HuffPost bloggers get #DarwinAward, legal equivalent

A U.S. District judge has dismissed with prejudice (note that) a suit 9,000 bloggers filed against Huffington Post, rejecting their claim to be entitled to a $105 million cut of the pie from the Greek Goddess' merger with AOL.

This is why it's a Darwin Award, legal equivalent. From the story:
U.S. District Judge John Koeltl said "no one forced" the bloggers to repeatedly provide their work with no expectation of being paid, and said they got what they bargained for when their works were published.

"The principles of equity and good conscience do not justify giving the plaintiffs a piece of the purchase price when they never expected to be paid, repeatedly agreed to the same bargain, and went into the arrangement with eyes wide open," the judge wrote.

Koeltl also dismissed claims that AOL materially misled the bloggers about how often their works were being viewed, and how much revenue they were generating. 

To go into more detail.

First, the bloggers were blogging for free before a merger. To riff on Yeshua bar Yusuf's vineyard, you blog for no denarius earlier, you blog for no denarius later.

Second, Arianna had a history of things like plagiarism before the merger. You knew who you were dancing with all along.

Third, before her (fame and finance driven) self-reinvention, she was married to a rich conservative. More "history."

Fourth, from the story, more Drwin Award level stuff:

Jeff Kurzon, a lawyer for the bloggers, said, "We are reviewing the decision and considering our options."
Really? Are you, as a lawyer, too dumb to get the "with prejudice" part of the ruling? Or, are you gambling that a fair chunk of the 9K suing bloggers are that dumb? In that  case YOU are the one who should be sued, Mr. Kurzon.

Per friend Leo Lincourt, there may  be moral issues here, but they were evident before the merger. I think a fair chunk of the bloggers are probaby less idealistic than they claim, perhaps a bit like a fair chunk of OWS supporters who suddenly discovered how evil Wall Street was when it wouldn't hire them.

Fact is, these bloggers have a bit of recourse, at least, still today.

First, how many of you 9K are STILL blogging for HuffPost? STOP IT! You're now part of the problem, not the solution.

Second, take the next step. If you still read any paid blogger on HuffPost, STOP IT! Even if you can't read their particular thoughts anywhere else. 

Third, tell your favorite paid bloggers what you're doing, and why.

More economic good news for Obama?

Consumer confidence has hit an almost-five-year high. And, it's possible that hiring will continue on its slow uptick. The stock market reflects the sentiment, though it's interesting that health stocks soared on the presumption that SCOTUS will gut Obamacare.

I don't think the unemployment rate will fall below 8 percent before September. But, if it gets down to that level, an even 8.0, and oil prices stay below, say, $115/bbl, and people do a reasonable uptick in purchasing, I give Obama 3-2 odds against Romney. The SCOTUS ruling on Obamacare, whatever it is, will be spinnable his way more than Romney's. Romney will try to tack back left, but he's got too much on the record for that to work too well.

eXXXon hits new low

How low will eXXXonMobil stoop to fight the effort to rein in global warming? Low enough that its paid shill advocacy group CEI is starting an anti-Earth Hour.
"Gather with friends in the warmth of a heated home, watch television, take a hot shower, drink a beer, call a loved one on the phone, or listen to music," the institute says on its website.
Human Achievement Hour has been around, actually, since 2009. But the PR for it sounds like it's ramping up this year. Sadly, I saw a link to another eXXXon PR flak site, disguised as "news," as a link on an Austin American-Statesman story sidebar.

Countering eXXXon and CEI, the latest info about the reality of CO2 and climate change, related to ocean content, is here.

March 28, 2012

It takes a lawyer to tell a good lie

And, on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Rutgers law prof Stuart Green tells a whopper.

Riffing on the government's recent action against file-sharing site Megaupload, Green says that downloading pirated music isn't "theft."

He goes on to say that perhaps it could be called ... "misappropriation" or something similarly mild.

His argumentation to get to this point is laughable, starting here:
When Industrial Age Bob and Joe started inventing less tangible things, like electricity, stocks, bonds and licenses, however, things got more complicated. What Bob took, Joe, in some sense, still had. So the law adjusted in ad hoc and at times inconsistent ways. Specialized doctrines were developed to cover the misappropriation of services (like a ride on a train), semi-tangibles (like the gas for streetlights) and true intangibles (like business goodwill).  
So, natural gas, or coal gas or whatever before it, is only semi-tangible? News to plenty a chemist, I'm sure. Beyond that, in the guise of libel or slander, there'd been civil statutes against taking business goodwill, at least in narrow circumstances, long ago.

But here's where Green goes straight into a mix of circular plus fatuous:
If Cyber Bob illegally downloads Digital Joe’s song from the Internet, it’s crucial to recognize that, in most cases, Joe hasn’t lost anything. Yes, one might try to argue that people who use intellectual property without paying for it steal the money they would have owed had they bought it lawfully. But there are two basic problems with this contention. First, we ordinarily can’t know whether the downloader would have paid the purchase price had he not misappropriated the property. Second, the argument assumes the conclusion that is being argued for — that it is theft. 

The "first" argument could be used in some way, to justify all sorts of other theft. Beyond that, related to a different type of intellectual property, 40 years ago, when I was a kid, bookstores and supermarkets and drugstores already had "no loitering" signs on the magazine racks. The second is setting up his straw man, for when he goes on in the column to call it less than theft.

But ...

I have no doubt that, if he uploaded his law papers to the cloud, or offered them for sale in ebook form, and somebody hacked and downloaded them for free, the word "theft" would immediately come to his lips.

And, therefore, I wonder: Just how many songs has Mr. Green illegally downloaded himself? And, I wonder further: Is the RIAA wondering the same first wonder as I am?

He's right to protest the draconian solution to the problem, namely PIPA or its disguised cousin, SOPA. But, to claim that what's happening is not theft is an entirely different issue than that of how we should address this and try to stop it. Ultimately, a Stuart Green comes off looking as laughable as the RIAA.

March 27, 2012

#OWS - young, white, well-educated ... latte-sipping?

But, who is this resistance? (UPDATE, Nov. 16: And, what will happen to it now that Zuccotti Park has been raided by the NYPD? UPDATE 2, Nov. 16: OWS semi-officially believes in communism.)

The Occupy Wall Street website has breakout information on a web-based poll it commissioned early in October. The fully-crunched numbers/data from the poll are here, in PDF.

Here's a few samplings from the webpage:
64.2% of respondents were younger than 34 years of age.
While the sample is relatively young, one in three respondents is older than 35 and one in five respondents is 45 and older.
7.9% of respondents have a high school degree or less.
92.1% of the sample has some college, a college degree, or a graduate degree.
27.4% have some college (but no degree), 35% have a college degree, 8.2% have some graduate school (but no degree), and close to 21.5% have a graduate school degree. 6.4% in the sample agree somewhat or strongly that they regularly use Facebook and 28.9 percent use Twitter regularly.
And one from the PDF:
Table 6 asks respondents to identify their race and ethnic origin. The data suggest that 81.3% of respondents considered themselves White, 1.3% Black\African American, 3.2% Asian, .4% Native American Indian, 2.9% Mixed, 7.7% Hispanic, and 3.2% considered themselves some other group.
Gee, how did that one not make the website? Probably because that, even more than the fat tail on the education response, would make clear that this isn't the 99 percent. Rather, it's the 2-80 percent, or something like that.

UPDATE, Nov. 26: Other reports confirm that black Americans simply aren't connecting to OWS.
“Occupy Wall Street was started by whites and is about their concern with their plight,” Nathalie Thandiwe, a radio host and producer for WBAI in New York, said in an interview. “Now that capitalism isn’t working for ‘everybody,’ some are protesting.”
This gets back to comments I've made before. Black Americans, by and large, have seen capitalism work less well for them for longer, including being the prime targets of subprime mortgages.
Beyond a lack of leaders to inspire them to join the Occupy fold, blacks are not seeing anything new for themselves in the movement. Why should they ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations?
The story also notes that black churches were key to the civil rights movement, but aren't part of any clarion call right now, as far as the lack of leadership. It adds that A-list black civil rights groups are co-opted, if you will, by the amount of money they've received in the recent past from Big Tobacco and other hypercapitalists.

So, young, white grad students and graduate degree holders. How many have MBAs and can't get financial employment because Wall Street screwed up? How many sought MBAs to try to work at Wall Street pre-2008? Ditto on how many have JDs and can't practice corporate finance law?

Oh, and almost 5 percent are, if not 1 percenters, 5 percenters. 5.4 percent make more than $100K a year, and $120K is the cutoff to be in the top 5 percent of U.S. incomes.
The remainder 13% of the sample earn over $75,000 with close to 2% earning over $150,000 per year.
And, what were/are the income levels of their parents?

Or, to put it yet another way. At least some of the more stereotypical members of OWS are Millennial-generation youth who probably had helicopter moms and whose overstimulation in the self-esteem movement says they should be making $100K a year now.

Those issues might be a partial explainer for why OWS doesn't have an "agenda."

(Update, March 27, 2012: New research indicates that at college or early post-college ages, Millennials are indeed much more the "me generation" than Boomers or even Gen-Xers at similar ages. That, in turn, would add fuel to my contention that many an OWSer wouldn't be protesting had he, or perhaps she, gotten that Wall Street job in 2008 for which they got their grad degrees._

A certain percentage of its members, three years ago, might have been trying to get jobs with the very Wall Street firms they now vilify. Or, they may actually have been employed there. So, other than narrow self-interest, and assuming I'm on the right track here as to what grad degrees are held by the top-educated OWSers, what led you all to become protesters? Speaking of that, some people are now questioning whether Occupy students at Harvard, other Ivy League schools and similar elite institutions might not be getting a bit hypocritical, while others wonder the same about the moral integrity of the universities that churn out so many 1 percenters. (Some elite schools are doing a bit to increase class-based, not just race-based, affirmative action, but progress is slow at best.)

Stay tuned. The OWS website is doing a repeat/follow-up. Let's see if, five weeks or so later, polling information changes.  The blog post announcing it is already getting fun comments. Like this: 
Depends on what the results are and the reason for the survey. It may never see the light of day. Besides there are so many trolls on this board, I'd call the results questionable. I told them I don't vote so I am sure they care very little about my answers. 
And this: 
What difference does that make, it's a "click the dot" plurality system, which perpetuates the two-party system. 
And this: 
I started this survey, but it looks to me like a move on/dem thing, so I am not going to finish it. Anyone else feel the same way? 
Beyond that random sampling, other commenters say that a "principal interpreter" means secondary interpreters, etc. Sounds like a certain amount of paranoia floating out there.

And .... the survey's already closed! WTF? And, given the shutdown, when will we learn its results?

Meanwhile, per the New York Review of Books, here's yet more reason to be skeptical, even cynical, about at least a certain swath of the "movement":

Adbusters, in a word, a magazine I found pretentious when I first looked at it 15 years ago. From the story author's "welcome to Adbusters" email:
Thank you for joining our network. You are now part of a 90,000+ strong global network of activists, cultural creative’s [sic] and meme insurgents—a revolutionary force that, with your active involvement, just might reshape how power and meaning flow in the 21st century. Together lets live a little more on the wild side, launch a few telling cultural interventions and pull off some surprising pranks, jams and other essential mental resuscitations.
And, even without receiving such a "welcome" email, the "antic, Dadaist tone" is exactly what I saw 15 years ago, too. So, yes, I'm hard on OWS. To riff on Rahm Emanuel, protest as street art is wasting a good crisis, as are the degree of pampered Millennials who may be in iGeneration mode. Union members who have shown up at Zucotti Park should take over, especially left-liberalish ones like longshoremen. More on that below the fold

Online journalism follies continue

Problem 1: This Reuters story in the Chicago Trib about Embridge pipelines. Entirely a US/Canada story. Entirely reported and edited from Bangalore, India. Meanwhile, friend Leo Lincourt notes "I like how it had the unlinked URL and the placeholder for where the factbox was supposed to go." Hmm, maybe the Trib is outsourcing website content management.

Problem 2: The L.A. Times has a paywall. It appears similar to the NYT's. I know of know "LAClean." But, in Firefox, going to "private browsing" defeats it.

This isn't some small chain, some small newspaper.

This is the L.A. Times, with a paywall even more "fake" than the New York Times.

And, the MSM wonders why it continues to struggle financially. Web-savvy readers dodge fake paywalls, to get news stories that are relatively "thin" because papers still don't "get it" on paywalls and financial hemorrhaging.

March 26, 2012

Is Greg Smith of #GoldmanSachs really a 'hero'? Maybe not

Oh, sure, everybody from the often-combative Matt Taibbi to a fair degree closer to the center of the political spectrum is touting the "brave departure," as Taibbi calls it, of the former Goldman Sachs executive director, chronicled in his own words in a New York Times op-ed.

But, does everything he says stand up? Especially about his own valor or whatever?

People who read here regularly know that I'm not going to bash him from the right, unlike the Wall Street Journal and many others.

But, let's take an honest look at what Greg Smith says in his column.

First, he blames this all, at least by implication, on current GS CEO Loyd Blankfein.
When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

This stuff, including trading AGAINST toxic alphabet soup derivatives inside the company, was happening when Henry Paulson was still the head, before he became Bush's Treasury Secretary.

That means this claim:
It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.  
Is pure bullshit.

No, it doesn't sound "surprising"; it sounds "dubious," "incredulous" or other things.

Second, he didn't become an executive director yesterday, nor could he have been totally naive about the already-changed-under-Paulson culture until after he became an executive director.

So, to riff on Watergate:

What did you know, Mr. Smith, and when did you know it?

Third, the culture had changed even before Paulson was CEO. It had changed even before Smith was hired. Ever read about the repeal of Glass-Steagall, Mr. Smith?

Ever hear about Alan Greenspan, et al, including people in government with GS connections, refusing to countenance regulation of derivatives, way back then, even? The derivatives which you were apparently still selling?

Combining both points two and three, one must wonder if Mr. Smith is engaged in apple-polishing and character-polishing as much as he had a real crisis of conscience, if not more.

That, in turn, makes this statement of his ironic at least:
Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence. 
So, is that how you got promoted? And, did you metaphorically become a Lizzie Borden there, or just why are you leaving?

And (update, March 26) what did you know about stuff like this — alleged short-sheeting short-trading clients?

Until I learn more, and until Greg Smith talks about donating, say, 25 percent of his profit on derivative sales to charities for the needy (not ADL as a nonprofit) my response is:

Cry me a river.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all in favor of some insider exposing details of still-ongoing duplicity at Goddam Sachs. But, let's not give the messenger a halo; to riff on the ax murderer line, if the messenger needs to be shot after he delivers the message, then shoot him!

More seriously, I hope some magazine does a long-form story about this, including people who entered Sachs about the same time as Smith, worked with him, etc. Let's hear the backstory.

Meet your new robotic journalistic overlords

No, no cheap sci-fi joke.  It could be real. And soon.

Just as the Net continues to knock the props out on media advertising, robotic story-writing could finish knocking the props out from people writing stories.

Evgeny Morozov, like me a worrier about the "dark side of the Net," has the details. And, while a start-up group like Narrative Science may be breaking first ground on this, on the tech side, Morozov is right to worry about Google, Amazon, et al, taking over this concept, and force-feeding you and I a bunch of "personalized" robotic crap.

So, this isn't so "wonderful."