Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Shinya Yamanaka won a Nobel Prize in Physiology for his work with stem cells.  Apparently, he's found a way to create stem cells without using embryonic stem cells.  This is a good thing because it avoids some of the controversy surrounding embryonic stem cells.  Whether or not you feel there are moral implications in the use of stem cells isn't that important.  Allowing the scientists to do their job without the political battles, religious leaders butting in, and people weighing in on all the issues except the actual research is much better for everyone but the philosophers from an efficiency stand point.

But this article in Slate which talks about the moral relief that Dr. Yamanaka's brings to that area of science raises some good points and ignores some others.  One, is obviously the troublesome issues surrounding using embryonic stem cells can be avoided.  There's no longer any good reason to not fund this research.

One of the things I think it ignores is that stem cell research was the only reason anyone talked about the destruction, or preservation, of the embryos from artificial insemination.  Personally, I don't really have an opinion about any of these embryos one way the other, but the moral certitude that the Christian right approaches stem cell research was always blatantly hypocritical when they weren't equally as aggressive about artificial insemination.  No one really wants to talk about those embryos b/c who wants to rain on the parade of someone who's trying so hard to have a child.  So, the issues surrounding those embryos, how many should they keep, what should they do with the unused ones, etc, is now probably going to be ignored.

The other issue that I think is important is about moral equivalencies.  If various embryos, blastocysts, or collections of cells have the same moral standing of a child, then wouldn't a stem cell also have some moral worth, regardless of its origin.  If we are using the potential of a collection of cells as a determinant of personhood, why would the origin matter.  If we are using the genetic code, then even a dead skin cell could have moral worth.  So what are the criteria we're using for personhood?  Stem cell research was really the only serious place this discussion was taking place b/c the lines are so firmly drawn on abortion.

So, what he's done is a huge accomplishment, but the chances that a serious conversation about these moral questions remain in the spotlight are nil.  But the fact that there won't be the conversation means the scientists can actually get some work done.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Tom Brokaw's idea about file sharing

I was listening to Tom Brokaw on a podcast.  He got to talking about how to save newspapers and wandered over into pirating music and movies.  He said that younger generations think that these things are free and that attitudes need to change in order to save newspapers.

I’ll ignore his point that people pirate these things b/c they believe they should be free, but there’s a lot of information that indicates that it’s more likely that people pirate things b/c it is more convenient.   Itunes punched a big hole in music downloads and a lot of the movies that are illegally downloaded aren’t readily available, Game of Thrones jumps to mind.

One of the reasons that younger generations may doubt the alleged value of the materials they pirate is because the industry who produces the CDs or movies aren’t honest about the costs.  I’m going to talk about music more than movies, but check the price of DVD, versus a download on cable on demand, versus Amazon Prime, versus rental at a redbox.  You’re going to get several different prices and some will be significantly higher than others.  

With music, when record companies switched formats to CDs they raised prices, but a series of price fixing suits quickly made it apparent that that wasn’t a reasonable price for the CD.  But the labels kept trying to raise the prices.  Then, when the CD product became obsolete, they still tried to maintain a high price.  When they were able to promote music regularly by selling it online for 2.99 or 4.99 it became clear that at best, most records are at least priced twice what their cost is.  

The next issue became, what are the actual costs to the music industry.  A series of lawsuits showed the money wasn’t going to the musicians.  It wasn’t going into CDs, liner notes, and cases anymore.  It also wasn’t going into the transportation or storage for those obsolete CDS.  So, who’s getting the money?  Promotion maybe? But overall, it was people who have very little to do with the music.  

This point was made clearer when independent artists began giving away their music b/c they knew it would spur concert ticket sales. Busta Rhymes recently gave away his new record on Google Music.  Other artists began raising money to record their music on kickstarter.  Suddenly it was quite clear that a reasonable band could probably record a record for $20,000 or less. If they're going to sell 10,000 records online, for $5 they could probably cover costs and put a little in their pocket.

So, if the price is so elastic, and the costs are no longer there, and the record companies are dishonest and greedy, then how do you assess what a reasonable price for a record is?  You can’t tell.  So you pay the price that is most advantageous to you.  That is the measure the industry has chosen to determine price.  But suddenly, when baud rates are high enough and the product can be transferred digitally, the industry lost control of setting price and it's the consumer setting the price at what is most advantageous to them. And that price is free.

So, if Mr. Brokaw is right, then what has to happen first is that the industry has to become an honest broker when setting prices.  They need to establish some credibility in their pricing schemes.  In order to do that they have to start treating the musicians who create music fairly.  As long as musicians are complaining that they’re getting ripped off and there are enough high profile cases of record labels ripping off their artists, they won’t be able to establish any credibility.  They also probably have to get more uniform pricing.  It’s understood that Kanye will sell more records and he’ll be able to discount his record b/c sales volume will make up the price differential,  but bands that don’t sale big on a major label shouldn’t be twice the price that an indie label charges or that is the same price as the physical CD.

Until there is some kind of credible pricing scheme consumers will set the price based on their own self interest. And that's bad for the record labels. Because as far as consumers can tell, if the record labels go bust, the consumer loses nothing. We buy directly from the artist, and most of us would prefer to do that. So, the labels need to show what value they contribute to the music and why they deserve any portion of the money for the product.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Livin' in the 1990s

Slate Culture Gabfest, which should be in my sidebar but I suck as a human being, and the New York Times had a discussion about nostalgia for the 1990s. The Times had this fascinating quote from Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, “[We] were so freaked out about documentation then . . . that people were going to misrepresent you . . . we didn’t really honor what we did very much.”

I remember things slightly differently, everyone and their sister seemed to photograph shows or write a zine about them. I guess zines weren't really supposed to last very long, but any self respecting punker had at least a shoe box full of zines stashed under their bed. I had several half rack boxes of zines. I still have one.

Anyway, the part I do agree with Kathleen about is that we thought there was some corporate spy hanging out to steal our culture. So what would they do with the youth culture? We knew they would misrepresent us, but what we were really worried about was being co-opted. We didn't want our own culture watered down and sold back to us ala Hot Topic, the stupid Emo fad thing, Warp Tour, and on and on.

If you flip through an old issue of Maximum Rock N Roll, by old I mean when Tim was still alive, you'll see endless discussions about the co-opting of our culture (I'm sure those arguments are still going on but frankly if MRR didn't become completely unreadable after Tim, you must have been a Heart Attack reader). We worried endlessly about selling out. When Jawbreaker "sold out", i.e. toured with Nirvana and signed to DGC, I about went apeshit.

One interesting contrast between then and now is that there no longer seems to be amy concern about selling out. Just about every band I like has a song in a commercial. That would have been unthinkable in the 90's. Converse has a series of summer songs that are almost always wonderful. The latest, by Matt & Kim with Andrew W.K. and Souljah Boy, is super fun.

I was thinking about what's changed since then. One thing is, we used to think the big music labels were evil masterminds. They basically fucked over anyone they could. Steve Albini wrote this great opinion piece that was basic reading for music fans for my generation. The big labels were evil. You could watch them ruin a band in a single record cough Dear You cough.

Now, after watching the labels basically eff up every opportunity they had during the conversion to digital formats, we know that the labels are run by idiots. They complain about how expensive it is to promote a new band, and what we all know is that a good band will promote themselves. We know that the labels can't choose good bands, thus Ke$ha has a youtube channel with a bunch of her videos. The labels are so poor at running their business they have to constantly lobby congress and bully people with stupid lawsuits to try and keep their crappy business model running. WooHoo for free markets.

But the latest music generation has watched this failure of imagination, business sense, and ability from the major labels. It's pretty clear that the major labels are not evil genius. They're not even evil sort-of-bright guys. So who cares if the Born Ruffians get paid to plug a credit card or the New Pornographers are in a phone commercial? They can't co-opt the culture b/c they can't navigate social media. Making a good facebook site is above most of their ken, let alone co-opt it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I like Kathleen Parker. I think she's the most intellectually honest of the conservative op ed writers at the post. Normally she doesn't engage in apologetics, but her column today did that. It's one of her weaker columns. My first problem is that she calls Herman Cain's bigoted statements against Muslims and Islam as rhetoric. Calling his comments rhetoric elevates them to too high of a level. His statements are inane, especially in regards to sharia.

My second problem is that she says that people who object to his statements are looking "for a nugget to chew on". By trivializing his critics as people solely looking for a political opportunity she fails to stand by some of our basic american principles. The case could be made that maybe his critics take the 1st Amendment and Article 6 of the constitution seriously. It could be said that maybe they've read and understand the founding principles of our government and believe any one casting themselves as a serious political candidate should do the same. It's not demagoguery to denounce bigotry, especially when the bigot could be in a position of power over those he's bigoted against.

Herman Cain, if he were elected, would be required to swear an oath that he would enforce the constitution. His comments about mosques and having religious tests make it clear that he does not know what is in the constitution and what it means. It is clear, even when you have the full quote, that he is prejudiced against Muslims.

Cain hasn't just said one bad thing. He's repeatedly made statements that show his prejudice against Islam and his misunderstanding of it. Cain is a bigot. He has an irrational dislike of Islam based on incorrect assumptions. He is wrong about Muslim's desire to convert Christians. He does not even remotely come close to know what sharia is and does not know anything about what happens in mosques. He does not try to find the correct information about these matters and attributes evil intentions to Muslims. It's bigotry.

My last big gripe about Parker's column is that she focuses on the comments and not what they show about his fitness for office. Being ignorant of Article 6 is bad, but not understanding the 1st Amendment is unforgivable. In his comments about the courts invalidating the Oklahoma law, he also makes it clear he doesn't understand the role of the courts and why the Bill of Rights was added to the constitution.

The court can strike down laws that the people enacted when they violate the constitution. That's what the Oklahoma law did and so the court fulfilled their duty and struck down the law. As nefarious as Cain tried to make it sound the case, basically a man wanted to write his will in accordance with his religion. The Oklahoma law invalidated his will, and any other Muslim's will who chose to write their will in accordance with their religious beliefs. This law discriminated only against Muslims, in that it prevented only Muslims from being able to fulfill their religious duties when it comes to estate planning. The court was right to strike it down and anyone who has a high school civics education would understand.

Cain is obviously smart enough to understand basic civics, the fact that he refuses to demonstrates that he is not able to control his bigotry and has no business being in an elected office of any kind.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fake Populism

I was listening to Slate Culture Gabfest and they endorsed an appearance by Steve Coogan on some BBC show talking about the News of the World scandal. The Guardian has a running news page about the scandal here. News of The World were hacking peoples cell phones illegally and the people they hacked ran the gamut from celebrities to soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan. The hack that has most offended the public was the hack of Milly Dowler, a 13 year old murder victim.

Anyway, while watching the Steve Coogan piece there was a link to a Hugh Grant piece. After watching those videos and a couple others I noticed that Murdock's people are using populist arguments to defend their actions. I think this is basically a smoke screen, but their argument basically goes "A bunch of rich people are telling poor people what to read". You can see this argument really clearly on this video of Hugh Grant in the commenter's explanation of the video.

It's kind of amazing to me that they would even try this b/c this isn't a class issue at all. Rupert Murdock is a whole lot richer than Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan put together an multiplied by 10. This article says Murdock is worth 5.6 billion. That maybe overstated b/c some articles are saying that he's lost a billion dollars since the scandal broke. This isn't some laborer demanding to read hacked voicemails from a murdered school girl versus Hugh Grant's annoyance at being caught with a hooker. It's an issue of whether or not Murdock should be allowed to profit by breaking the law and invading people's privacy.

In contrast to that, although they did hack celebrities and politicians, Murdock's people were hacking people like Milly Dowler, victims of the 7/7 bombings, and soldiers who died at war. Clearly these people aren't wealthy celebrities or people who have chosen to throw themselves in the spotlight.

The argument is a complete red herring. Most of the readers don't want these people's phones hacked, that's why advertisers left the NOTW in droves. They didn't want to piss off their customers who are not going to reward anyone associated with a scumbag outfit like NOTW. So, the argument is really about whether or not the freedom of the press incorporates the right of the press to hack into phones. The majority consensus is that the press does not have that right, and that's why there are laws against it. It's further evidenced by the disgust shown by the public.

The question of an individual's privacy is a completely different question than whether rich people want to tell poor people what to read. I also think it's funny that they used this attack on Steve Coogan. I don't think there are any interesting tabloid stories about him (the best a quick google search came up with is that Courtney Love accused him of some stuff), so he really doesn't have a dog in this fight.

Now, the reason I think this is interesting is that Murdock's shown a willingness to break the law, a desire to distort the debate, give specious arguments, and a disregard for the truth. At one point Fox News insinuated that Fox itself had been hacked. The reason the press is granted freedom is to prevent every single one of those things from happening. It should clarify debates by providing facts and information, it should regard the truth, or the attempt to find the truth, as its highest ideal. If it works contrary to that then there is no reason to have freedom of the press. So if Murdock's businesses do not share the goals of the press, is it still press?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Peltzman Effect

I learned about the Peltzman Effect today. It's when people react to a safety measure by engaging in riskier behavior. That riskier behavior leads to outcomes that offset the benefit of the safety measures.

Today, there was also this article in the NY Times about TARP. The article talks about the unfinished work of TARP, but I see the problem more as the unfinished work of financial reform as a whole. There were some bills introduced and passed that enacted some small measure of financial reform, but the regulations in the bills are small compared to the power of the institutions that they regulate. The uncompleted nature of this work is clear from the conflict that Elizabeth Warren is having with republicans right now. The idea that the consumers don't need some protection from the predatory practices of the financial sector is astonishing to me.

I finished No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolis and The Big Short by Michael Lewis recently. If these books made anything clear it was the total failure of regulation by the SEC or the private sector. The rating agencies appear to be no more than a joke. Ideally the negative outcomes of poor decisions are supposed to cause the financial institutes to self regulate, but that clearly did not happen. We factually know that this does not work because we witnessed it repeatedly during the Bush II administration.

I believe TARP eliminated the idea of moral hazard, which didn't work anyway but was supposed to have some effect, and now might be causing a Peltzman Effect. Markopolis argued that it would be better to have no government regulation than the current system because it misleads investors to think there is some form of competent oversight, but as Madoff showed, there isn't. So it would be better for investors to understand that noone makes sure the information they receive is accurate and correct, that statements they get are forged, and that the investments they make are real. If they went in knowing at any moment all their money could disappear b/c the whole thing was cooked up, it would be more honest and give investors the opportunity to assess the real risks of their investments.

But we haven't done that. The SEC seems to be amazingly incompetent, and somewhat corrupt. Its legal counsel was recently investigated b/c his investments in Madoff may have created a conflict of interests. It seems in the case of Madoff specifically, and CDO's in general, that there is an actual Peltzman Effect going on b/c of attempts to regulate the industry.

I don't think this means there needs to be less regulations, but I think regulatory agencies should lose their immunity from suit for failure to perform their jobs. I think there should be more ways for private enforcement of these regulations, and I think we need a new regulatory regime with people like Elizabeth Warren running them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Victim Blaming?

There was an op-ed in the NY Times last week about the way the media is portraying the women that were living with Charlie Sheen since his melt down, or whatever you want to call it. I find this op-ed interesting because based on the argument laid out I agree with the author entirely. However, where she stops, I realize that more conclusions can be made.

Her main complaint is that Charlie Sheen, a known woman beater with a serious history of domestic abuse, is getting a free ride for his terrible behavior while the women, aka goddesses, are receiving a significantly more negative portrayal. The author makes the argument that the media assumes the negative treatment these women receive at the hands of Charlie Sheen is deserved b/c of their chosen professions.

It’s these sorts of explicit and implicit value judgments that underscore our contempt for women who are assumed to be trading on their sexuality. A woman’s active embrace of the fame monster or participation in the sex industry, we seem to say, means that she compromises her right not to be assaulted, let alone humiliated, insulted or degraded; it’s part of the deal. The promise of a modern Cinderella ending — attention, fame, the love and savings account of a rich man — is always the assumed goal.

I don't disagree that this may be the reason the media is portraying the women in this manner. However, there is another explanation of why the media is portraying the women as bimbos. It might be that despite the clear history and overwhelming evidence that Charlie Sheen is prone to violence and not particularly stable right now, they still choose to associate with him.

This might be an instance of victim blaming, but they are playing with fire and it is probably going to be sooner than later that something bad comes of this. I'm not saying they deserve to be assaulted or that Charlie Sheen should not be held accountable for his actions. I'm saying associating with him is clearly a bad idea and when you make a terrible decision you shouldn't be free from the blame of making that bad decision. If you walk through a bad neighborhood alone, flashing money and you get mugged, I can only be so sympathetic.

Clearly these women should not be beaten, but it's not a question of what should happen. It's that there is an obvious and high probability of what's likely to happen. Just like announcing your flush with cash in a crime ridden neighborhood is likely to lead to a mugging.

There are probably arguments to be made that because of these women's prior abuse or mental health issues they're not capable of making good decisions about these things, but this argument would work just as well for Charlie Sheen.

So, I think the author of the op-ed has valid points all around, but I think there is an argument to make about the failures of these women as well and that is going to deprive them of sympathy but not of culpability.

This is a problem for a lot of issues in feminism, racial equality, or social equity. The factors in all these problems are complex, but just like you don't want to blame the victims of bad schools, date rate, or prejudice, there is a factor of culpability that has to be faced. If advocates against sexism don't honestly address the dangers that women should be aware of when they get wasted at frat parties, parents of failing children don't address regarding the educational climate in their home, or advocates of diversity address about societal norms for employment, then it allows their opponents to dismiss their arguments for failing to take personal responsibility for their own role in these problems.