Digest 11

Another digest of worthwhile online reading you might have missed, mostly material from late November to mid-December 2010, which means it’s stuff archeologists have dug up. Offline I just finished reading Tom Russell‘s Riding with the Magi, and I’m listening to Patty Griffin, Rammstein, others. I haven’t included any Wikileaks stuff here; for that and more, check out my Twitter feed — plus, I’ll post a round-up of some of the best writings/videos on Wikileaks soon.

  • A terrifying article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, written under a pseudonym, gives an insider’s perspective on businesses that sell custom essays to students.

    You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students […]

    In the past year, I’ve written roughly 5,000 pages of scholarly literature, most on very tight deadlines […] I will make roughly $66,000 this year. […]

    three demographic groups seek out my services: the English-as-second-language student; the hopelessly deficient student; and the lazy rich kid [who] is poised for a life of paying others and telling them what to do. Indeed, he is acquiring all the skills he needs to stay on top. […]

    you have no idea how deeply this kind of cheating penetrates the academic system, much less how to stop it. […]

    I’ve written essays for those studying to become school administrators, and I’ve completed theses for those on course to become principals. […]

    Say what you want about me, but I am not the reason your students cheat. […] You know what’s never happened? I’ve never had a client complain that he’d been expelled from school, that the originality of his work had been questioned, that some disciplinary action had been taken.

  • This UCF professor isn’t taking it lying down, though. The St. Petersburg Times reports he became a folk hero after taking a hard line on cheating when he discovered evidence of students’ dishonesty.

    [Richard] Quinn gave [his 600+ students] a choice: Confess and you had a shot at clearing your transcript. Don’t and you could be suspended or expelled. […]

    Calls and e-mails poured into UCF from as far away as Ontario, Maui and Tel Aviv. One urged Quinn to address Congress, another suggested he write a book on ethics. […]

    And a Michigan father of three wrote: “Finally, someone with some guts.”

  • A CowPi blog post mentions Ivan Kramskov’s 1876 painting The Meditator (aka The Contemplator).

    Ivan Kramskov’s The Contemplator (1876)

    A very beautiful painting, in my opinion.

    As the CowPi post notes, Dostoevsky refers to the painting in The Brothers Karamazov (Bk 3 Ch 6) while describing the character Smerdyakov:

    Yet [Smerdyakov] would sometimes stop in the house, or else in the yard or the street, fall into thought, and stand like that even for ten minutes. A physiognomist, studying him, would have said that his face showed neither thought nor reflection, but just some sort of contemplation. The painter Kramskoy has a remarkable painting entitled The Contemplator: it depicts a forest winter, and in the forest, standing all by himself on the road, in deepest solitude, a stray little peasant in a ragged caftan, and bast shoes; he stands as if he were lost in thought, but he is not thinking, he is “contemplating” something. If you nudged him, he would give a start and look at you as if he had just woken up, but without understanding anything.

  • From the department of weird, awe-inspiring astronomy stuff most of us don’t understand before, during, or after reading such articles as this NYT one. But there are pretty pictures.

  • Paupan tribes battle over a ringtone.

    Hundreds of Wamena tribesmen descended on members of the Yoka tribe on Wednesday morning in the Papua provincial capital Jayapura, after learning that Yokas were sharing a ringtone which insulted Wamenas.

    The ensuing clash reportedly left 23 houses burned to the ground, another 56 damaged and 12 vehicles set ablaze.

  • I approve of the blog Get Rich Slowly and of Beverly Harzog’s frowning take there on the Kim Kardashian credit card marketed to kids as young as thirteen. Though maybe they were prepaid debit cards? That’s right: were. The cards got terminated.

  • A brainy economist‘s dismal-science take on what US-China’s trade relations say about America’s future. I added his blog to my Google Reader.

    Consider America’s top exports to China. Leaving aside aircraft and soybeans (neither a sustainable basis for national advantage), America’s sole export of note is semiconductors. The rest? Plastics, steel, pulp, chemicals, copper, aluminum, engines, cotton–literally commodities. It’s hypercommoditized raw materials, of the lowest of value–literally just stuff, far from higher value goods or services. It’s not the picture of an economy humming with innovation, meaning, purpose–it’s the picture of a junkyard. […]

    [The US imports] toys, computer peripherals, apparel, footwear, TV’s. America put itself in hock for disposable, rapidly commoditizing, self-destructive, depreciating stuff, discount-rack junk–literally the lowest of low-grade “consumer goods”. […] It’s not the picture of an economy that’s investing in tomorrow: it’s the picture of Black Friday in a big-box store

    Some interesting dissent in the comments. Wish I understood economics better. Kinda what the Administration is saying these days.

  • One of my classmates from the Clarion West Writers Workshop (my CW2008 experience), Rajan Khanna, nabbed a literary agent. Congrats!

  • A WSJ article on the benefits of deep friendships. Its use of current gender stereotypes is annoying, but the info’s good.

  • NPR reports on (meatspace) college classes at midnight.

  • Well, this is stupid. And here’s the Sociological Images post about it.

    Blargh.

  • A post at LifeHacker considering the best domain name registrars. The comments are somewhat useful. I wish I knew more about SSL’ing this site, and about various registrars’ track record on resisting censorship.

  • Startling article in the BBC: anti-privacy vandals egg households in Germany that chose to opt-out of Google’s Street View service (i.e., that chose to have their homes blurred in the imagery).

    Local media report that homes in Essen, west Germany have been pelted with eggs and had ‘Google’s cool’ notices pinned to their doors. […]

    The German government took a hard line on the service, mandating that citizens be allowed to opt out, before pictures went live.

  • NPR talks about difficulties involved in raising a child who doesn’t eat meat.

  • In a 2-page Washington Post Op-Ed, Ted Koppel writes about changes in news (television and otherwise) across time:

    The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. […] Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. […] On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap. […]

    The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.

    I don’t think the picture’s that bleak, but then again, I’m a techno-utopian, not a person actually aware of what he’s talking about in this regard. But does anyone know much about the future of this disruptive Net technology?

  • Karl Marx Munchies? Two nonprofit Panera cafes open (NPR) with a third on the way (Zacks), each in a different state. These cafes have no cash registers; just donation boxes. Most patrons pay the suggested amount, but many pay less and many pay more.

  • I wish I had an award to give BUY THIS SATELLITE for expressing their plan so simply and succinctly; instead, I’ll chip in a tiny tiny tiny bit when possible. The plan?

    The owner of the world’s most capable communication satellite just went bankrupt.

    We’re fundraising to buy it.

    So we can move it.

    To connect millions of people who will turn access into opportunity.

    The video:

  • On the other hand, this important essay in the Boston Review says technology can help heal global economic inequality only when it’s joined with competent, well-intentioned people.

    technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute. If you have a foundation of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their capacity and lead to amazing achievements. But, in circumstances with negative human intent, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have been denied a basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around. […] Computers, guns, factories, and democracy are powerful tools, but the forces that determine how they’re used ultimately are human. This point seems obvious but is forgotten in the rush to scale [projects by adding more resources]. […] In every one of our projects, a technology’s effects were wholly dependent on the intention and capacity of the people handling it. The success of PC projects in schools hinged on supportive administrators and dedicated teachers. […]

    when a village has ready access to a PC—connected to the Internet or otherwise—the dominant use is by young men playing games, watching movies, or consuming adult content. […] these same users typically forsake software-based accounting and language lessons. What interventionists perceive to be “productive” use of technology is trumped by the “frivolous” desires of users. Even users in the developed world rarely take advantage of their technologies for purposes of self-improvement—the most popular iPhone apps are games and other entertainments, nothing that would improve productivity or health—but this tendency is exacerbated among those who have grown up with lessons of learned helplessness and low self-confidence.

  • The WSJ reports on Inspire, an online Al-Qaeda recruitment magazine. Huh?

  • Talking Points Memo calls it a Sign O’ the Times: Netflix goes into the S&P 500, the New York Times goes out. (original: Bloomberg).

  • Blogging at Talking Points Memo, Robert Reich keeps telling people what’s up. I gave his latest book, Aftershock, to a friend this Christmas, and procured a copy for myself while I was at it.

    The vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going. (The rich spend a much lower portion of their incomes.) The crisis was averted before now only because middle-class families found ways to keep spending more than they took in – by women going into paid work, by working longer hours, and finally by using their homes as collateral to borrow. But when the housing bubble burst, the game was up.

    Read more from Reich in this McClatchy article.

  • Popular Science: Russia approves the first (publicized!) animal-to-human transplant. Insulin-producing pig cells into type I diabetes human patients. Xenotransplantation! Not just outta William Gibson; outta ye olde myths.

  • The NYT discusses how the Republicans won much of Congress in 2010.

  • A former health insurance executive pleads for more corporate whistleblowers, RawStory reports.

    Wendell Potter, the former Cigna communications chief who turned whistleblower and revealed the insurance industry’s disinformation campaign during the recent healthcare debate, is now urging other would-be whistleblowers to get off the fence and speak out. […]

    “I would tell people to take a risk, do the right thing, follow your heart and your conscience,” he said. “You’ll feel so much better.” […]

    “Finally, one friend said to me, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ And I said, ‘Well, they could probably kill me.’ He said, ‘Is that likely?’ And I said, ‘Well, probably not. But I’ll probably lose my job, I’ll probably never work in corporate America again.’ He said, ‘Well, you can at least push a broom, can’t you?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’”

  • Swiss company senseFly sells “safe and easy-to-use flying camera[s].” senseFly CEO describes their vision: “We want to allow people to capture data anywhere, any time, without heavy infrastructure or long preparation time.” There goes the neighborhood. Here’s one of their videos. Uh, before you buy a senseFly gizmo, be sure to check applicable laws in your state, nation, homeowners association…

  • Health.com, an outfit connected with Health Magazine, slideshows ten careers most associated with depression. Teacher? Check. Writer? Check. …

  • Life expectancy in the USA keeps going down. NPR’s on it.

  • Tinkering with your Xbox 360? RawStory reports on dismissed prison-term-carrying charges faced by a student whom an undercover federal agent reported for allegedly violating DMCA by “installing chips on Xbox 360 consoles that allowed people to run pirated DVDs and other unofficial content.” The student said, in RawStory’s words, “the purpose of modifying the Xbox consoles” — a practice he reportedly made a business out of — “was to allow people to use decrypted backup copies of their own gaming software.” He said “‘it’s a given that any game will be scratched in that [faulty Xbox console].”

  • I wish I had the time and resources to build a Hackintosh, and I wish I had the time and resources to implement these LifeHacker instructions so that the Hackintosh triple-booted OS X, Windows, and Linux.

  • The blog Get Rich Slowly tells you how to replace six vital documents and the best times of year to purchase particular items.

  • Cybertherapy avatars help with social anxiety, the NYT reports in a fascinating article.

    Researchers are populating digital worlds with autonomous, virtual humans that can evoke the same tensions as in real-life encounters. People with social anxiety are struck dumb when asked questions by a virtual stranger. […] And therapists can advise patients at the very moment those sensations are felt. […]

    “Even if this approach works, there will be side effects that we can’t anticipate,” said Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” […]

    “The figures themselves don’t even have to be especially realistic to evoke reactions,” said a psychologist, Stéphane Bouchard, who directs the cybertherapy program at the University of Quebec in Outaouais. “People with social anxiety, for example, will feel they are being judged by virtual humans who are simply watching them.” […]

    “You can see the possibilities already,” said Dr. Slater. “For example, you can put someone with a racial bias in the body of a person of another race.”

    These kinds of findings have inspired a variety of simple experiments. Dropping a young man or woman into the virtual body of an elderly person does in fact increase sympathy for the other’s perspective, research suggests.

    Thoughts: 1) I think cybertherapy could be a great thing; 2) People can also understand other perspectives through reading fiction; 3) Lanier’s quote above seems dumb: there can be unanticipated negative side effects for any good thing.

  • Politico on a new, “anti-Obamacare” Congressional Republican who wants his government-run healthcare to kick in at once.

    Republican Andy Harris […] reacted incredulously when informed that federal law mandated that his government-subsidized health care policy would take effect on Feb. 1 – 28 days after his Jan. 3rd swearing-in.

    “He stood up and asked the two ladies who were answering questions why it had to take so long, what he would do without 28 days of health care,” said a congressional staffer who saw the [closed-door] exchange […]

    “Harris then asked if he could purchase insurance from the government to cover the gap,” added the aide, who was struck by the similarity to Harris’s request and the public option he denounced as a gateway to socialized medicine.

    Welcome to most everyone else’s life.

  • Although I think Ruth Rosen underestimates recent efforts by progressive activists, her constructive points are spot-on in her Talking Points Memo post.

    What Obama, Democrats and progressives failed to do during this electoral cycle was to define and then proudly grab the terms of debate. If you look back at all successful social movements, all their great accomplishments, some of which changed laws, were to change the terms of debate. The Civil Rights movement forced Americans to question the truthfulness of racial supremacy and the fairness of racial inequality. The environmental movement asked whether we could protect the planet’s health and sustainability if we raped all of its resources. And the gay and lesbian movements, by encouraging people to leave their closets, forced Americans to recognize the ordinary humanity of their gay friends, neighbors, and relatives.

    Often I think Obama gets stuck in a bad place because he tries to play the roles of inspirer and lawmaker at one and the same time. If there were a prominent Dr. King or someone else to take over the inspirer job, or a Congress capable of handling the lawmaking one, I think Obama would have an easier time.

  • Watch this, read about it. He’s 15.

  • John Cassidy says in the New Yorker that much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless.

    no advanced society has survived without banks and bankers. Banks enable people to borrow money, […] they allow commerce to take place without notes and coins changing hands. They also play a critical role in channelling savings into productive investments. […]

    although certain financial activities were genuinely valuable, others generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth […] If [many bankers] retired to their beach houses en masse, the rest of the economy would be fine, or perhaps even healthier. […]

    [Recently the most booming] place to work has been in [the financial] industry that doesn’t design, build, or sell a single tangible thing […] Wall Street has become the preferred destination for the bright young people who used to want to start up their own companies, work for NASA, or join the Peace Corps. […] In the first nine months of 2010, the big six banks cleared more than thirty-five billion dollars in profits. […]

    “Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry when it’s just a utility, like sewage or gas?” Woolley said to me […] “It is like a cancer that is growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body.”

    There is […] a blog, The Epicurean Dealmaker, written by an anonymous investment banker […] he cautioned his colleagues […]: “You mean to tell me your work […] is worth more to society than a firefighter? An elementary school teacher? Good luck with that.” […]

    “There was a presumption that financial innovation is socially valuable,” Woolley said to me. “The first thing I discovered was that it wasn’t backed by any empirical evidence. There’s almost none.”

    Here’s The Epicurean Dealmaker blog. Yup, added to my Google Reader.

  • The NYT reminds you how stupid the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are.

  • Nature discusses, among other brain things, research into drugs for pre-empting or forestalling schizophrenia in people assessed as at high-risk for the condition.

    a brain that can’t consistently organize either its electrical activity or its thoughts: the shattered mind of schizophrenia […]

    Particularly contentious is the idea of clustering schizophrenia’s early whisperings into a diagnosable ‘prodrome’ period during adolescence. […]

    The impact could go far beyond inappropriate use of antipsychotic drugs, she says. It could negatively affect how families, friends and the broader community treat that person, as well as their self-conception […]

    Freedman thinks the state of knowledge requires caution and humility. “Schizophrenia research is full of people who are sure they know what they’re doing, and only later do we understand that the whole paradigm was off. Then we look back in amazement at how wrong they had it. I like to think everyone in my generation would be well aware of this history, and be reluctant to say we’re there.”

  • NPR translates Federal Reserve gobbledygook into plain English.

  • Slate with a discussion of Barry Hannah’s ecstatic fiction. The article says his “gobsmacked juxtapositions of language betray a perceptive apparatus in constant, boyish awe before the world. The intensity of Hannah’s prose comes off [as] a faithful rendering of ecstatic perception. Reading him, one encounters a man exponentially more alive than most.”

  • The URL says it all: “Laptop bought on eBay contains details of every UK soldier serving in Afghanistan province.”

  • Slate explains the philosophical underpinnings of David Foster Wallace’s fiction.

    [Wallace] hoped he would ultimately be bold enough to give up philosophy for literature. […] “The world, the reference, of philosophy was an incredibly comfortable place for young Dave,” [Costello] said [of Wallace]. “It was a paradox. The formal intellectual terms were cold, exact, even doomed. But as a place to be, a room to be in, it was familiar, familial, recognized.” Fiction, Costello said, was the “alien, risky place.” […]

    Wallace’s solution was to pursue both aims at once. […] “I had this idea that I could read philosophy and do philosophy, and write on the side, and that it would make the writing better. [But] There wasn’t time to write on the side—there was 400 pages of Kant theory to read every three days.” […]

    Wallace felt Markson had done something that even Wittgenstein hadn’t been able to do: he humanized the intellectual problem […] That was something only fiction, not philosophy, could do. […]

    Explaining a disheartening[?] realization [at the conclusion of Wittgenstein’s philosophy], Wallace said that “unfortunately we’re still stuck with the idea that there’s this world of referents out there that we can never really join or know because we’re stuck in here, in language, even if we’re at least all in here together.” […]

    the biographical literature suggests that Wittgenstein was perfectly at ease with the solipsism of the Tractatus, as well as oddly, even mystically consoled by its suggestion that ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual truths are unutterable.

  • Boing Boing mentions a white paper discussing pre-emptive defense for presumably forthcoming intellectual property law attacks on 3d printers. The paper has a great name: “It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up: 3D Printing, Intellectual Property, and the Fight Over the Next Great Disruptive Technology

  • The WSJ with a feature story titled “Assembling the Global Baby” — about international surrogacy.

    In a hospital room on the Greek island of Crete […], a Bulgarian woman plans to deliver a baby whose biological mother is an anonymous European egg donor, whose father is Italian, and whose birth is being orchestrated from Los Angeles.

    She won’t be keeping the child. The parents-to-be—an infertile Italian woman and her husband (who provided the sperm)—will take custody of the baby […]

    PlanetHospital’s most affordable package, the “India bundle,” buys an egg donor, four embryo transfers into four separate surrogate mothers, room and board for the surrogate, and a car and driver for the parents-to-be when they travel to India to pick up the baby. […]

    Laws are vague and can conflict from country to country. In 2008, baby Manji was born to an Indian surrogate just weeks after the divorce of her Japanese parents-to-be. […] According to a Duke University case study in legal ethics, it led to a tangle of Indian and Japanese law that first prevented the little girl from being issued a birth certificate, and later made it difficult for her father bring her home to Japan. Months went by. To fix the problem, Japan issued a special humanitarian visa.

  • NYT: New rules have taken effect thanks to the Affordable Care Act (2010 health insurance reform): insurance companies now have to spend most (at least 80-85%, depending) of their premiums income on providing medical care to you and me and less of it on CEO compensation, profit, marketing, and other overhead.

  • Thanks to Mind Hacks, I found MacLean’s article on a pair of conjoined twins who see through each other’s eyes and share silent thoughts.

  • Via Boing Boing, and originally posted at The Balloonist, the greatest comic book cover ever.

    “WOULD HE USE HIS POWERS TO SAVE THE WORLD”?

And that’s a wrap! Look for future digests to be way shorter and way more frequent. Unfortunately, also look for flying pigs.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 kate on 01.05.11 at 9:40 pm

ha! your digests make me laugh every time! i love that you have so many sources of information.

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