Monthly Archives: June 2014

Why Hobby Lobby is no win for religious freedom

“The whole point of establishing a corporation is to create an entity separate from oneself to limit legal liability…. It seems awfully dangerous to allow corporations to have it both ways.“ — David Gushee, an evangelical Christian professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University

“The New Testament never—not one time—applies the ‘Christian’ label to a business or even a government…. The tag is applied only to individuals. If the Bible is your ultimate guide, the only organization one might rightly term ‘Christian’ is a church.” — Jonathan Merritt, an evangelical Christian writer and blogger for the Religion News Service

Why Today’s Hobby Lobby Decision Actually Hurts People Of Faith

My opinion:

  • If you’re going to have religious freedom, then closely held corporations ought not to be required to take action against their beliefs.

  • On the other hand, as Gushee notes, the entire point of a corporation is to separate the business from the person. The family that owns Hobby Lobby can’t on the one hand claim, oh mercy, don’t make us support birth control, it’s against our religion, but on the other hand, oh goodness gracious, don’t make us personally liable for Hobby Lobby’s debts and regulatory violations because we enjoy corporate protection. I look forward to a smart attorney going after Hobby Lobby’s owners’ personal finances over some matter unrelated to religious belief.

  • It’s swell to see Big Government stand up for individual freedom. And by extraordinary coincidence, Big Government is once again standing up for the rights of the 1%.

  • Women have a right to decide for themselves whether to use birth control or get abortions.

Scott Rosenberg: The Facebook mood-manipulation study is creepy because it shows the true face of Facebook

The “emotional contagion” study dramatically rips off a curtain that separated Facebook’s public face and its backstage. Publicly, Facebook woos us with a vision of a social information stream shaped by our individual needs and networks; backstage, the folks behind the curtain are pulling levers to find more efficient ways to hijack our attention and sell us stuff. (The frontstage/backstage theory sounds like The Wizard of Oz but is actually Erving Goffman’s.)

The simple reason Facebook’s mood study creeps us out

I started this blog in April as a means of maximizing the benefit I get from social networks. But over time, I find I like getting the most from social platforms while keeping them at arm’s length. That’s particularly true of Facebook.

Uh-oh. I left the kitchen gate open and Minnie got into the catfood again

I caught her in flagrante delicto when I heard the easily identifiable clang of her tags hitting a metal bowl. I’d been hearing them for several minutes and just ignored them, but then I thought, “Why is she making that noise? I don’t feed her in the kitchen anymore.” And I looked at the open gate and I knew what had happened.

Oh, well. This was a couple of hours ago, so if the catfood gives her the trots she’s got the rest of the day to get it out of her system, rather than make a mess inside the house, or even worse, insider her crate overnight.

“Get it out of her system” is not a figure of speech.

Immediately after I caught her in the act, she knew she’d done wrong. So she went into Full Placation Mode. She knows that she gets affection if she looks sad or if she looks excited and happy, so she tried both — her head hung low with her ears down while her tail was wagging so hard that her whole butt was wiggling to keep up.

The Washington Post has a really nice review of the second and final volume of William Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein biography

Despite an already long and cumbersome title, William H. Patterson, Jr., could have included still an additonal subtitle to the second volume of his mammoth, authorized biography of Robert A. Heinlein, something along the lines of “The Most Influential American Science Fiction Writer of the 20th Century.” Even Philip K. Dick — the current darling of hipsters and academics — regarded Heinlein as the master.

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) possessed an astonishing gift for fast-paced narrative, an exceptionally engaging voice and a willingness to boldly go where no writer had gone before. In “— All You Zombies—” a transgendered time traveler impregnates his younger self and thus becomes his own father and mother. The protagonist of “Tunnel in the Sky” is black, and the action contains hints of interracial sex, not the usual thing in a 1955 young adult book. While “Starship Troopers” (1959) championed the military virtues of service and sacrifice, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) became a bible for the flower generation, blurring sex and religion and launching the vogue word “grok.”


Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.

Though Heinlein can do no wrong in his biographer’s eyes, if you use yours to look in Patterson’s voluminous endnotes, you will occasionally find confirmation that the writer could be casually cruel as well as admirably generous, at once true to his beliefs and unpleasantly narrow-minded and inflexible about them. Today we would call Heinlein’s convictions libertarian, his personal philosophy grounded in absolute freedom, individual responsibility and an almost religiously inflected patriotism. Heinlein could thus be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.

Throughout his life he regularly exhibited an almost feudal sense of gratitude and loyalty: Because transfusions saved his life during a difficult surgery, he actively lent his name and time to local and national blood banks. The day that Americans landed on the moon, he declared proudly, should be the first day of a new calendar; it was to him the greatest achievement in the history of humankind. When biographer Thomas Buell wrote for information about Adm. Ernest J. King, under whom Heinlein had once served, the novelist replied that he considered King a nearly perfect military officer and then produced 59 typed pages of anecdote and reminiscence.

Reviewer Michael Dirda says Heinlein’s last novels, from I Will Fear No Evil on, are “generally regarded as bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull.” I find them that way, and so do many fans, but I’ve read that they were Heinlein’s most popular books. I suspect Dirda, like me and many Heinlein fans, regard Heinlein’s so-called “boy’s books” of the 1950s as his best work.

Dirda also notes that the blurbs on the back of the Patterson biography include both uber-macho spy novelist Tom Clancy and gay African-American writer Samuel Delany, which sums up the scope of Heinlein’s work.

‘Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century,’ by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Arr, maties, “Pirate Cinema” is entertaining and thought-provoking near-future science fiction

Pirate Cinema cover

I just finished the audiobook of Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema, a rollicking and enjoyable story set in the underground of near-future London.

Cory has a few superpowers as a novelist, but the rarest among them is that he makes political novels entertaining. He puts that power to work in Pirate Cinema.

(Disclaimer: I’ve been a fan of Cory’s for years. He’s done some writing for me when I’ve been an editor with a freelance budget. And we’ve had a few meals together. I think of him as a friend, while also admiring the hell out of him.)

Pirate Cinema tells the story of Trent McCauley, a teen-ager from the north of England obsessed with downloading pirate movie clips and mashing them together into satirical short videos. When the authorities shut down his family’s Internet access for his piracy, his father is unable to work, his mother can’t get medical treatments, and his sister finds homework overwhelming. Blaming himself, Trent runs away to London, where he falls in with a band of lovable rogues who are like digital updates of the characters of Oliver Twist (there is even one character nicknamed “Dodger.”)

Trent continues making pirate films and runs afoul of the law. Eventually, he and his pals resolve to take down the entire entertainment-industrial complex.

Cory has spoken out and written voluminously about abuse of copyright law. He puts his passion to good work here, weaving a story about underground, black-market art and the people who make it, as well as the business interests who fight against it and the laws they buy. However, some Amazon reviewers found the lecturing in the book heavy-handed.

But Pirate Cinema is primarily a coming-of-age novel. Trent learns to fend for himself, take responsibility for his own actions, experiences first love, and explores the wide world of London. Cory is an expatriate Canadian who’s lived in London for years, and he paints a vivid picture of the metropolis and the people who live between its cracks.

The voice acting of the audiobook, by Bruce Mann, is well done, bringing the characters to life. Mann appears to do all the various varieties of English accent authentically — although what do I know? I’m from New York and live in California.

“Slaying, yet again, the idea that the languages we speak shape the thoughts we think.”

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds that language shapes the way we think. It’s an obsolete linguistic theory, but it’s going strong in other disciplines and in pop culture:

Perhaps the most famous invocation of Sapir-Whorf is the claim that because Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, they have a mental apparatus that equips them differently—and, one assumes, better—than, say, Arabs, to perceive snow. (I once watched the wintry film Fargo with an Egyptian who called everything from snowflakes to windshield-ice talg—the same word she used for the ice cube in her drink.) To get a hint of why nearly all modern linguists might reject this claim, consider the panoply of snow-words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, whiteout, drift, etc.), and the commonsense question of why we would ever think to attribute Eskimos’ sophisticated and nuanced understanding of snow to their language, rather than the other way around. (“Can you think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow?” Harvard’s Steven Pinker once asked.)

A Dozen Words for Misunderstood: Language and Thoughts

How Silicon Valley companies fight against diversity and fight for conformity

The next thing Silicon Valley needs to disrupt big time: its own culture.

I don’t see this nonsense in the B2B companies I cover. But there’s plenty of it in the social media startup industry, which has gone in a brief decade from revolutionary and democratic to — well, I was going to say “masturbatory,” but that insults wanking.

One of the reasons I don’t trust Facebook is that Mark Zuckerburg was a full-throated advocate of dudebro culture when he was starting out. I don’t think vast wealth and power are going to improve someone like that. They’re more likely to reinforce prejudices.

Is the “self” actually a thing?

Two new books explore the self and identity.

Most of us, when we look in the mirror, have a sense that behind the eyes looking back at us is a me-ish thing: a self. But this, we are increasingly told, is an illusion. Why? Well, according to neuroscientists, there is no single place in the brain that generates a self. According to psychologists, there is no little commander-in-chief in our heads directing our behaviour. According to philosophers, there is no “Cartesian ego” unifying our consciousness, no unchanging core of identity that makes us the same person from day to day; there is only an ever-shifting bundle of thoughts, feelings and memories.

In the last few years, a number of popularising books, bearing titles like The Self Illusion and The Ego Trick, have set out the neuroscientific/psychological/philosophical case against the self. Much has been made of clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly: like Cotard syndrome, whose victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit to having a life history; or “dissociative identity disorder,” where a single body seems to harbour multiple selves, each with its own name, memory, and voice. Most of us are not afflicted by such exotic disorders. When we are told that both science and philosophy have revealed the self to be more fragile and fragmentary than we thought, we take the news in our stride and go on with our lives.

But perhaps we should be paying closer attention. For example, there is striking evidence (detailed by the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow) that each of us has a “remembering self,” which makes decisions, and an “experiencing self,” which actually does the living. And when the  remembering self looks back on an experience and decides how enjoyable it was, it can arrive at an assessment that is quite out of whack from what the experiencing self actually endured. It is your remembering self that tyrannically resolves to take another family vacation this summer, even though your voiceless experiencing self was miserable for most of the last one. Evidently, the subtleties of the self are of practical as well as scholarly interest.

I’ve read articles about how the self doesn’t really exist, and the arguments are compelling. But they’re wrong. When I stub my toe in the dark, there is a self involved, which feels pain and swears.

This isn’t just abstract philosophy for me. This train of thought leads to places more personal and important than I like to share online. This thinking leads to issues I’m having a tough time dealing with. I’m not comfortable talking about them here now. Maybe I never will be.

So instead of sharing those thoughts, I’ll share a story about something that happened to me once at a computer conference.

I didn’t have to be at the conference until midday, so I arrived after most of the journalists had already registered. I went directly to the press registration room, which was nearly deserted, except for a couple of low-level PR people behind a table and one loud and obnoxious journalist who’d arrived a few minutes before me. There had been some problem with his registration and he was outraged. Didn’t they know who he was? He was from WCBS News Radio 88, the biggest news radio station in New York, and how dare they not have his registration? The low-level PR people were apologetic, as they always have to be, but there was nothing they could do.

I wandered around the deserted pressroom for a while looking at stuff until the situation with the News Radio 88 guy was resolved. Then I approached the registration table. I was a little bit more polite than usual, as I try to be when in a situation like that — when dealing with service people who just had to deal with a jerk. “I’m Mitch Wagner from Computerworld. I preregistered,” I said.

Well, I got the reaction that NewsRadio 88 guy was looking for. “Mitch Wagner from Computerworld!” They were waiting for me, had feared I would not show up, and were very glad that I had arrived!

I’ve thought about that encounter every now and then in the subsequent years. The welcome I received, gratifying though it was, was because Computerworld had decided to show up for the conference. It had very little to do with me, personally. If you work for an important company, you should never confuse yourself for the company you work for. That’s a lesson that often comes hard for midlevel employees when they leave the very important company they work for.

We are each simultaneously the center of our own universe, and an insignificant mote in objective reality.

On the other hand, I had earned my place at Computerworld, so I could take pride in that.

Over my career, I’ve worked for publications that got a lot of respect in their industries, where the name of the publication opened doors for me. I’ve worked for unknown startups. Working for the big name pub is better, but working for the unknown startup has its advantages too.

I grew up listening to NewsRadio 88, and so I might have been impressed to meet someone who actually worked for it, if he hadn’t been such a jerk.

Still, the more I think about it, the more sympathetic I am to the guy from NewsRadio 88. It’s hard to be reminded of your own cosmic insignificance.

When I was freelancing, I did an article for The Washington Post. The pay was lousy and the whole project turned out to be a fiasco (not my editor’s fault. I didn’t understand the nature of the assignment and therefore it required extensive revision). But it was worth it, just to have the opportunity to call people on the phone and say, in my best Ted Baxter voice, “This is Mitch Wagner, calling for the Washington Post.” My identity — my self — was that I was the Washington Post guy for a little while.

Is there such a thing as the self?

Nope, that’s not a bit creepy

Facebook has been manipulating news feeds to make users happy or sad, as part of a scientific experiment on whether emotions are contagious online.

A face-to-face encounter with someone who is sad or cheerful can leave us feeling the same way. This emotional contagion has been shown to last anywhere from a few seconds to weeks.

A team of researchers, led by Adam Kramer at Facebook in Menlo Park, California, was curious to see if this phenomenon would occur online. To find out, they manipulated which posts showed up on the news feeds of more than 600,000 Facebook users. For one week, some users saw fewer posts with negative emotional words than usual, while others saw fewer posts with positive ones.

Digital emotions proved somewhat contagious, too. People were more likely to use positive words in Facebook posts if they had been exposed to fewer negative posts throughout the week, and vice versa. The effect was significant, though modest (PNAS,