MonthNovember 2009

Given the choice, how much choice would you like?

Is more choice better? Ten years ago the answer seemed obvious: Yes. Now the conventional wisdom is the opposite: lots of choice makes people less likely to choose anything, and less happy when they do choose.

The most famous supporting evidence is an experiment conducted by two psychologists, Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar. They set up a jam-tasting stall in a posh supermarket in California. Sometimes they offered six varieties of jam, at other times 24; jam tasters were then offered a voucher to buy jam at a discount.

The bigger display attracted more customers but very few of them actually bought jam. The display that offered less choice made many more sales – in fact, only 3 per cent of jam tasters at the 24-flavour stand used their discount voucher, versus 30 per cent at the six-flavour stand. This is an astonishingly strong effect – and utterly counter to mainstream economic theory. […]

They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments – such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

Financial Times: Given the choice, how much choice would you like?

(via Ethan Zuckerman)

US Food Stamp Program Expanding by 20,000 People Per Day

The program is expanding by about 20,000 out-of-work and underemployed people a day, the Post reported, noting the growth has been swift in once-prosperous communities effected by the housing bust.

“It’s time for us to face up to the fact that in this country of plenty, there are hungry people,” Concannon said.

UPI: Food stamp stigma fading fast

(via Cryptogon)

Liberating Wednesday: 52 times as radical as Buy Nothing Day

It’s become my day-after-Thanksgiving custom to post p.m.’s “Liberating Wednesday,” described by publisher Trevor Blake as “fifty-two times more radical a suggestion than ‘Buy Nothing Day.'” Originally published in OVO 7 Information in 1989.

How can we begin? Right next Wednesday! It’s the ideal day to take a sick-leave, to think, to read a book, to meditate. The center of the week could also become the spiritual center of our selves. We must be “centered” to begin something new. The Machine always pushes us to the edges, away from here and now, out of ourselves. Wednesday is the back-to-yourself-day.

OVO: Liberating Wednesday

Plants Have a Social Life, Too

After decades of seeing plants as passive recipients of fate, scientists have found them capable of behaviors once thought unique to animals. Some plants even appear to be social, favoring family while pushing strangers from the neighborhood.

Research into plant sociality is still young, with many questions unanswered. But it may change how people conceive of the floral world, and provide new ways of raising productivity on Earth’s maxed-out farmlands.

“When I was in school, researchers assumed that some plants were better or worse than others at getting resources, but they were blind to the whole social situation,” said Susan Dudley, a McMaster University biologist. “I went looking for it, and to my shock, found it. And we’ve found more of it since.”

In a paper published in the November American Journal of Botany, Dudley describes how Impatiens pallida, a common flowering plant, devotes less energy than usual to growing roots when surrounded by relatives. In the presence of genetically unrelated Impatiens, individuals grow their roots as fast as they can.

Wired: Plants Have a Social Life, Too

Yes, Sarah, There is a Media Conspiracy

Matt Tabbi’s colorful description of how political journalism works:

Once the signal comes down that this or that politician doesn’t have the backing of anyone who matters, that’s when the knives really come out. When a politician has powerful allies and powerful friends, you won’t see reporters brazenly kicking him in the crotch the way they did to Dean and they’re doing now to Sarah Palin. The only time they do this is when they know there won’t be consequences, meaning when the politician’s only supporters are non-entities (read: voters), as in the case of Ron Paul or Kucinich. Like America in general, the press corps never attacks any enemy that can fight back. To illustrate the point via haiku:

Journos are pussies

Only attack when it’s safe

Lay off entrenched pols […]

For those of you who can’t connect the dots, I’ll tell you what it means. It means she’s been cut loose. It means that all five of the families have given the okay to this hit job, including even the mainstream Republican leaders. You teabaggers are in the process of being marginalized by your own ostensible party leaders in exactly the same way the anti-war crowd was abandoned by the Democratic party elders in the earlier part of this decade. Like the antiwar left, you have been deemed a threat to your own party’s “winnability.”

And do you know what that means? That means that just as the antiwar crowd spent years being painted by the national press as weepy, unpatriotic pussies whose enthusiastic support is toxic to any serious presidential aspirant, so too will all of you afternoon-radio ignoramuses who seem bent on spending the next three years kicking and screaming your way up the eternal asshole of white resentment now find yourself and your political champions painted as knee-jerk loonies whose rabid irrationality is undeserving of the political center. And yes, that’s me saying that, but I’ve always been saying that, not just about Palin but about George Bush and all your other moron-heroes.

Matt Tabbi: Yes, Sarah, There is a Media Conspiracy

See also: Jay Rosen’s “Sphere of Legitimate Debate.”

And on the subject of Palin and the GOP’s future: Max Blumenthal thinks she’s going to take the GOP down with her (Sarah Palin Rules the GOP — And She Will Destroy It). I’m not so optimistic, but one can always hope.

Is moderate religion harmful?

Now, many believers will argue that the harm done by religion isn’t religion’s fault. Many will point out all the wars, bigotry, fraud, oppression, quashing of science and medicine, and terrorizing of children done for reasons other than religion. And many will argue that, even when this stuff is done in the name of religion, it isn’t really inspired by religion at all. It’s inspired by greed, fear, selfishness, the hunger for power, the desire for control… all the things that lead people to do evil. […]

But moderate religion still does harm. It still encourages people to believe in invisible beings, inaudible voices, intangible entities, undetectable forces, and events and judgments that happen after we die. And therefore, it still disables reality checks… making people more vulnerable to oppression, fraud, and abuse.

What’s more, moderate religion is in the minority. The oppressive, intolerant, reality-denying forms of religion are far more common, and far better at perpetuating themselves. And moderate religion gives these ugly forms credibility. It gives credibility to the idea that believing in things there’s no reason to believe is valid, and actually virtuous. It gives credibility to the idea that invisible worlds are real, more real and important than the visible one. It gives credibility to the idea that our seriously biased personal intuition is more trustworthy than logic or verifiable evidence. It gives credibility to the idea that religious beliefs, alone among all other ideas, should be beyond criticism; that the very act of questioning religion is inherently intolerant. (It also, I’ve found, has a distinct tendency to get hostile and decidedly un-moderate towards non-believers when questioned even a little.)

Alternet: The Top One Reason Religion Is Harmful

(via Atom Jack)

I question the statement that “moderate religion is in the minority,” otherwise I mostly agree. This echoes
what Sam Harris wrote in the introduction to Letter to a Christian Nation:

Consequently, liberal and moderate Christians will not always recognize themselves in the “Christian” I address. They should, however, recognize one hundred and fifty million of their neighbors. I have little doubt that liberals and moderates find the eerie certainties of the Christian Right to be as troubling as I do. It is my hope, however, that they will also begin to see that the respect they demand for their own religious beliefs gives shelter to extremists of all faiths. Although liberals and moderates do not fly planes into buildings or organize their lives around apocalyptic prophecy, they rarely question the legitimacy of raising a child to believe that she is a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew. Even the most progressive faiths lend tacit support to the religious divisions in our world. In Letter to a Christian Nation, however, I engage Christianity at its most divisive, injurious, and retrograde. In this, liberals, moderates, and nonbelievers can recognize a common cause.

However, I have of late been taking less of a hard line with religion, thanks in part to the arguments of Scott Atran. I still believe that religion, on the whole, is harmful (that is, although most individual religious persons are mostly harmless, the collective tacit endorsement of grossly evil behavior is harmful). But I’m far less convinced that, as Trevor Blake has put it, religion can be withered by the “twin suns of reason and scorn.” To quote Atran:

“How do we as scientists advance reason in an inherently unreasonable world?” This is a very difficult issue and one that cannot be seriously addressed by simply trying to muscle science and reason into everyday or momentous human affairs. I am privy to hostage negotiations, and be assured that simply telling hostage takers their beliefs are bullshit will get you the opposite of what you want, like the hostage’s head delivered on a platter. Of course, that’s an extreme case; but reason by backward induction towards the less extreme cases in the actual political and social conditions of our present world and you will find that the tactics proposed at the conference for an unlikely strategic shift in humankind’s thinking will most probably blowback and backfire.

Atran has taken up another tactic. I can’t speculate as to its effectiveness, but he does demonstrate that there may be other ways forward.

History of London suburbs

poster from suburbia

This article on the recent Suburbia exhibition at the London Transport Museum takes a brief look at the history of suburbia:

Rather than some authentic, uncomplicated, unplanned response to ordinary people’s desires, London’s suburbia was the product of both planning and speculation, heavily mediated, and marketed using an impressive degree of subterfuge. The garden suburb was the official face of suburbia. Developed in 1907 by Toynbee Hall’s chair, Henrietta Barnett, and carefully planned by the socialist and architectural traditionalist Raymond Unwin, it attempted to build William Morris’s socialist “nowhere” in a capitalist context. Unwin and his partner Barry Parker developed a style based on whitewash, pitched roofs and large gardens. This became the basis for its many successors. Yet it was also tightly planned and full of public spaces to encourage social interaction. In the same year, the London Underground opened Golders Green station, and promoted its rural joys in an advertisement campaign, as a means of selling season tickets. Golders Green was enveloped by new, unplanned housing, although the Underground’s posters invariably depicted Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The exhibition alludes to the fact that London’s private transport companies were the sponsors and often the creators of suburbia, extending their lines into open country, promoting the glories of the countryside, and then developing it out of existence.

Guardian: Suburbia explored

(via Tomorrow Museum)

Adopted Man Claims Charles Manson Is His Father

charles manson adopted son

Matthew Roberts, who was adopted as a child, made contact with his biological mother who told that his father is Charles Manson. The article, in the ever trustworthy Sun, doesn’t mention anything about DNA evidence or any other corroboration, but the guy DOES look like Manson.

Full Story: Sun: I traced my dad… and discovered he is Charles Manson

(via Dangerous Minds)

Update: Roberts had a DNA test comparing him with Manson’s grandson Jason Freeman, but test concluded that the two men do not have a common ancestor. But he’s subsequently claimed that Freeman might not actually be Manson’s grandson, and as of 2012 was trying to get a direct sample from Manson.

See also: The Process Church of the Final Judgement

Interview with @dangerousmeme

Dangerousmeme is a subversive art project with a coterie of followers on the fringe.”

We are naturally drawn to hyperbole. I take furtive pleasure assuming the role of Cassandra or a ‘ Henny Penny‘. I ask people to question the source of their beliefs. We live in a soundbite-sized world where complex ideas are distilled as reductio ad absurdum. While my overarching themes tend to be dramatic, I also see humor in the outrageous, ominous ideas in our midst. I hope my followers they can muster a smile in the face of this dire information, have a better understanding of when it matters, and formulate their own informed opinions about the true nature of things.

I find irony in the number of people who follow me because they quickly read my tweets and accept them as truth, at face value. This is the tiny conceit in my concept. The net is wide, much greater than it would naturally be if I simply tweeted my own personal beliefs. However, by catching these ideological sleepers and gradually exposing them to a breadth of ideas, I hope I am ultimately not only preaching to the converted.

Globatron: Interview with @dangerousmeme

This sounds a lot like my philosophical approach to Technoccult for a long period of its existence. For various reasons, this has become more and more untenable and I’ve started to editorialized more and more.

Iraq’s mobile phone revolution

Asked to name the single biggest benefit of America’s invasion, many Iraqis fail to mention freedom or democracy but instead praise the advent of mobile phones, which were banned under Saddam Hussein. Many Iraqis seem to feel more liberated by them than by the prospect of elected resident government.

In the five years since the first network started up, the number of subscribers has soared to 20m (in a population of around 27m), while the electricity supply is hardly better than in Mr Hussein’s day. That is double the rate for Lebanon, where a civil war ended two decades ago and income per head is four times higher. […]

They also became a tool of commerce. Reluctant to risk their lives by visiting a bank, many subscribers transferred money to each other by passing on the serial numbers of scratch cards charged with credit, like gift vouchers. Recipients simply add the credit to their account or sell it on to shops that sell the numbers at a slight discount from the original. This impromptu market has turned mobile-phone credit into a quasi-currency, undermining the traditional informal hawala banking system.

Economist: Better than freedom?

(via Chris Arkenberg)

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