Young Billy seeks advice from notorious serial killers

In a strange and entertaining social experiment, in the late 90s Bill Geerhart “launched a letter-writing campaign to some of the most powerful and infamous figures in the country, posing as a curious 10-year-old named Billy.” These people included Donald Rumsfeld, Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger — and also some more… evil celebrities, including Charles Manson, Ted Kaczynski and several other notorious serial killers.

In the May/June issue of Radar Magazine, Geerhart reports on the follow-up to this experiment.

Excerpt of Manson’s reply:

Scanned image of Charles Manson\'s crazy letter to Billy

Props to the Ontario Government

Ordered my replacement birth certificate (old one is being used as a bookmark in some forgotten book somewhere in the Concordia University library): Friday.

Replace birth certificate arrives: Tuesday.

Who says we don’t have a fast, efficient bureaucracy.

The unmarked envelope it arrive in was a bit sketchy, thought. I half-expected to just find it filled with mysterious white powder.

The ethics of race- and ethnicity-based statistics

Since the Vichy government, France has been more than just reluctant to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, skin colours, etc. — it has positively banned such activities, and recently ruled that a sociology professor’s survey which sought to collect such data was unconstitutional. This from todays’ episode of CBC Radio’s Dispatches.

The EU has recently stipulated that its member countries work to fight discrimination and France has established a body to adjudicate claims of racial discrimination but it has so far seen few cases because without the body of statistics to back up such claims, there are few hard facts upon which to proceed.

The argument offered for maintaining the status quo by one of the interviewees, himself a university professor who studies discrimination (and whose own research showed that resumes with North African-sounding names were three times less likely to receive call-backs), were pretty weak. He claims that because there is, officially, no such thing as race in France, there can be no racial discrimination, and that race is an unscientific concept (true) therefore there can be no study of its effects in society (an incredible non-sequitur).

He reasoned that it would lead to greater discrimination because if, say, you asked who was Muslim, then decided that you would set aside a certain number of jobs for Muslims, that would lead to you needing to define “Muslim,” which would in turn lead to abuses.

This is of course not a bad point: the Canadian government’s definition of “Indian” is contributing directly to the disappearance of “Indians” (in one of Thomas King’s books he cites a statistic that there will be no Indians left in 20 or so years — I forget the exact number).

But taking education as an example, the prevailing attitude in France seems to run exactly counter to the approach that, in North America, is increasingly seen as both progressive and necessary to addressing blatant and serious inequalities. This is exemplified by the Toronto District School Board‘s fairly exhaustive and admired student survey, by the work of the US-based Education Trust, whose sole mandate is to work towards closing the achievement gap and does extensive research on the different educational outcomes of young people from various ethnicities, and is also heard in the calls of First Nations in Canada for better data on the achievement, dropout rates, and so on of young Aboriginal people. In North America, the issue is more often around privacy than potentially discriminatory use of such data.

Despite the pitfalls identified by Thomas King and the French professor on the CBC program, no sound policies for adequately addressing inequality could be formulated or implemented without this sort of knowledge.

Washington DC bike rental program — not enough critical mass?

According to the New York Times, Washington DC will launch a public-private partnership initiative to provide 120 rental bikes at 10 locations across the city, available for a $40/yr membership.

Good idea, but you have to wonder about the numbers. I’m sure they’re “starting small to see how things go,” but the success of similar initiatives in Paris (which has over 400 employees running the program), Barcelona, etc. seems to be based on their sheer numbers: 10,000 bikes at 250 stations in Paris, for instance.

Hopefully DC’s experiment goes well and hopefully they scale up. And if it doesn’t go well, hopefully it won’t serve as a disincentive to other North American cities to attempt their own programs.

Great conference on bikes; less great over-reliance on “tipping point”

I was at an excellent conference yesterday called Bike Summit 2008 that brought researchers, policymakers, politicians, etc. from across North American to discuss biking, infrastructure, public transit and all that stuff.

What was a bit less excellent, though, was the continual reference to the pop philosophy concept of “tipping point,” an idea that has some merit but not quite enough to warrant the amount of play it gets. For some relevant and fairly convincing criticism of the theory, see:

At the same time, Gladwell doesn’t deserve some of the criticism he’s received for this book. With the “tipping point” idea, Gladwell was, in one sense, a repackager: he took an old idea that had been floating around in similar form in the study of non-linear dynamics, chaos theory, combined it with some marketing theory on influecners, and came up with a new presentation. “Repackagers” are often disparaged in Western culture, and there are more than a few critics nipping at Gladwell’s heels, claiming he’s simply recycling old ideas and hasn’t provided anything of merit (with the implication that only what is new is worthwhile).

But Marx was a repackager too — he repackaged Feuerbach, Saint Simon, Hegel, Bakunin, Proudhon, etc. This is of course no mean feat, and a good repackager is every bit as valuable and original as someone who comes up with a “new” theory.

Slavoj Zizek web 2.0

Some thoughtful and entertaining musings from everyone’s favourite neo-Leninist:

Zizek’s reivew of Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harper’s, and in the current, May 2008 issue we are treated to Critchley’s response. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read Critchley’s book.)

While I agree with Critchley on the unfortunate fact of Zizek’s tendency towards “rhetorical posturing” and his absurd authoritarianism, I think Critchley writes Zizek off too quickly, and that there are in fact decent points in Zizek’s review that merit argument and discussion.

For one, I have to disagree with Critchley’s definition of politics as “the invention of interstitial distance”, and it is in fact statements such as this that lead people to mis-read Critchley as a postmodernist. In fact, Zizek sounds remarkably (and somewhat surprisingly) reasonable when he queries:

If the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way?

I don’t think we need to interpret “accepting the Third Way” as endorsing Chavez-style authoritarianism. What it means for politics and political philosophy is that the “beautiful soul” model that Zizek accuses Critchley of promoting (whether this accusation is fair I cannot say, not having read Critchley’s book) is not enough, and that left-wing politics must get its hands dirty and act “with(in) the state”–without, of course, meaning that violent revolution is the answer.

Here, I side with, I think, Critchley, Hannah Arendt, Gandhi, and an English truism when I say that violence only begets more violence. For more on violence, politics, and “starting with a blank slate”, see Naomi Klein:

Stiglitz: Iraq war to cost US close to 5 trillion USD

In an interview in the March issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the Iraq war will cost 3 trillion by “conservative estimates” (the most recent figure I’d heard), but is more realistically expected to cost nearly 5 trillion.

Some of the ironies and contradictions of this war identified by Stiglitz include:

  • this is the first war in American history to be financed entirely by deficit, much of this via China purchasing US Treasury bods with monies from their trade surplus — in the words of the NPQ interviewer, “a consumer democracy with no savings borrows from a market-Leninist state to combat terrorism and hold free elections in the first Shiite government in an Arab state in 800 years!”
  • this is the first war where taxes have been lowered as war was undertaken
  • this is also the most privatized war in history, with security contractors making up to $400,000 a year for the same job that American soldiers get paid about $40,000 a year for doing
  • US taxpayers pay insurance for the private contractors, but the insurance companies are exempt in cases of death/injury by “hostility”

beard caught in pencil sharpenerMeanwhile, Senator McCain admits that he doesn’t understand the economics behind the Iraq war and has no ideas about how to finance it.

Iraq is Jasper, and the US is Abe.