Monday, September 30, 2013

Authenticity, Status and SCA Culture

[This post refers to the Society for Creative Anachronism, a  historical recreation group with which I have long been active. I suspect problems similar to the one I discuss here exist in many other contexts.]

I recently put  a post on one of the SCA Facebook groups asking whether "authenticity police," people who go up to a stranger to upbraid her for the supposed lack of authenticity of her garb, were mythical. I asked because, although stories of such incidents are common in the Society, neither I, my wife, nor my daughter have ever seen one—and the three of us have been in the Society for a combined span of about a century. Reading the long thread that post spawned, I reached the following conclusions:

1. They are not mythical—such incidents sometimes occur.

2. I am not the only long time SCA participant who has never observed one.

3. Often the attack is bogus—the critic’s claim about what is or is not authentic is false.

4. A lot of people enjoy hearing and telling such stories, making them more common than the frequency of such incidents would explain.

All of which, I think, fits an unfortunate pattern.

The only required authenticity for an SCA event is some attempt at pre-17th century garb, a very low standard. But events frequently have contests in which entries are judged in part on how historically authentic they are, and the Order of the Laurel, a high status rank in the Society, is awarded primarily for researching, demonstrating, and teaching period arts. The result is to associate the knowledge and practice of historical authenticity with status, which I think explains my four points.

The aggressor in an authenticity police story is simultaneously putting down his victim and pretending to expert knowledge. If he actually had that knowledge he would not need to claim status in that way; if he had it for reasons of interest rather than status he would not want to. He chooses vulnerable targets, avoiding individuals who appear experienced and self confident and circles in which historical authenticity is taken seriously, which helps explain why some of us have never observed such an incident.

The SCA contains a minority of people who find it fun and interesting to try to figure out how things were done in our period and do them—make armor, cook from medieval recipes, compose music and poetry in period styles. It contains a larger number whose interest in authenticity is an attempt to do things the way they believe they are supposed to do them, a reflection of perceived social pressure. Which brings me to my point 4.

Suppose I am an active and productive participant who does not happen to have any interest in researching historical arts or using more of such research than necessary. I would like to defend my status against the feeling that I am failing at an important part of what the SCA is about. One way to do so is to convince myself that people who act interested in such things are only doing it as an excuse to put other people down or to gain rank. Repeating and elaborating authenticity police stories is one way of doing so. I can tell myself that people who are doing what I half feel I ought to be doing only do it to curry favor or as an excuse to push other people around—and I would not want to be a person like that.

Another consequence of a culture that views the study and practice of authentic arts as primarily a status game is that to encourage people to pretend to an interest they do not have in the hope of being rewarded with status. Having gotten it in the form of a peerage, they are likely to reduce or terminate  activities that have now served their purpose.

How might one reduce the problem? One way is to replace contests with displays and classes. Arts contests treat period arts as a competitive game, encouraging the idea that historical authenticity only matters for contests. That point struck me long ago reading an SCA publication on a particular art that devoted a couple of pages to what was or was not period—preceded by the comment that this information would be needed by those entering contests, with the clear implication that it would otherwise not matter. And arts contests make little sense except as a competitive game. How, in principle, does one decide whether one entrant's sonnet is better or worse than another entrant's dress?

[This is a revised version of a post with the same title that I recently made to one of the SCA groups on Facebook.]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pachauri Confuses Levels With Rates of Change

"I don’t think there is a slowdown (in the rate of temperature increase). I would like to draw your attention to the World Meteorological Organization which clearly stated on the basis of observations that the first decade of this century has been the warmest in recorded history."

(Quote from Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, in a BBC story)

Judging by this quote, the chairman of the IPCC is either innumerate or being deliberately dishonest. The fact that the first decade was the warmest in recorded history, if true, is not evidence that the rate of temperature increase has not slowed down, only that it is above zero.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Belated Reply to Brad DeLong

I recently, courtesy of Google, came across a piece by Brad DeLong critical of my views. It argued that there were good reasons why anarcho-capitalist ideas did not appear until the nineteenth century, reasons illustrated by how badly a stateless society had worked in the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century. I wrote a response and posted it to his blog, then waited for it to appear.

Today I discovered what I should have realized earlier—that his post was made nine years ago. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that my comment did not appear. The issues are no less interesting now than they were then and his argument is still up to be read, so here is my response:

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Your initial argument rejecting a stateless order on the evidence of the Scottish Highlands is no more convincing than would be a similar argument claiming that Nazi Germany or Pol Pot's Cambodia shows how bad a society where law is enforced by the state must be. The existence of societies without state law enforcement that work badly—I do not know enough about the Scottish Highlands to judge how accurate your account is—is no more evidence against anarchy than the existence of societies with state law enforcement that work badly is against the alternative to anarchy.

To make your case, you have to show that societies without state law enforcement have consistently worked worse than otherwise similar societies with it. For a little evidence against that claim I offer the contrast between Iceland and Norway in the tenth and eleventh centuries or northern Somalia pre-1960 when, despite some intervention by the British, it was in essence a stateless society, and the situation in the same areas after the British and Italians set up the nation of Somalia, imposing a nation state on a stateless society. You can find short accounts of both those cases, as well as references and a more general discussion of historical feud societies, in the webbed draft of Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, a book I'm currently working on; comments welcome.

So far as the claim that the idea of societies where law enforcement is private are a recent invention, that is almost the opposite of the truth. The nation state as we know it today is a relatively recent development. For historical evidence, I recommend Seeing Like a State, whose author goes to some lengths to make it clear that he is not a libertarian while giving a perceptive account of the ways in which societies had to be changed in order that states could rule them. 

As best I can tell, most existing legal systems developed out of systems where law enforcement was private—whether, as you would presumably argue, improving on those systems or not is hard to tell. That is clearly true of, at least, Anglo-American common law, Jewish law and Islamic law, and I think of Roman law as well. For details see my draft.

In which context, I am curious as to whether you regard yourself as a believer in the Whig theory of history, which views it as a story of continual  progress, implying that "institutions A were replaced by institutions B" can be taken as clear evidence of the superiority of the latter.

Friday, September 20, 2013

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

I recently decided to get active on Facebook. The groups dealing with economics or politics appeared to have a higher ratio of hostility to content than I was comfortable with, so I have mostly been posting in the SCA groups. I encountered interesting conversations there but also a pattern that I found disturbing—and suspect is not limited to that particular context.

One version takes the form of "it's all a matter of opinion" or similar statements, offered in response to a question about different ways of playing the game. When pushed, the poster seems to be saying that opinions are entirely arbitrary, that there are no reasons relevant to whether (for example) it is better to specialize in things associated with your persona's culture or to ignore that and do whatever in the SCA period seems interesting. 

A different version of what I suspect is the same pattern appears if I offer an argument for doing something—for example, for trying to do things as they were done in period even when the failure to do so will not be obvious to others and so will not interfere with their experience (discussed in an earlier post). Some people respond with arguments agreeing or disagreeing with me. But others respond with some version of "stop attacking me for not doing things your way" or "nobody should try to shove his views down anyone else's throat." It is as if offering reasons for doing something is merely a disguised way of trying to force people to do it, a form of aggression.

These responses suggest an unstated assumption that reason is irrelevant to much of what we do, that there are no good reasons for or against, that decisions such as how to play the SCA game are as arbitrary as opinions about the relevant merits of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Taken seriously, that seems to imply both that there is no point in conversation about these topics—why should you care what my opinion is if opinions have no basis—and that we might as well make our decisions by flipping coins. I suspect it goes along with a culture that regards "judgmental" as a pejorative term—as if there is no reason for people to make judgements.

The title of this post is a slogan used in fund raising for black colleges, but I think its application is wider than that. There is little point to having a mind if you do not believe it is of any use.


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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Humans are Better Than Computers at ...

Pretending to be humans.

Which is the reason for MMORGs such as World of Warcraft. Why hire a computer when you can get humans to offer a superior service for free?

(Inspired by xkcd1263)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Who are the Alawites?

As I expect a fair number of people now know, the Alawites are a religious sect, mostly in Syria. Assad is Alawi and they are a major part of his support. But, religiously speaking, who are they?

My vague memory was that they had a long history of keeping their doctrines secret, making it unclear just where they did or didn't fit into the general pattern of Muslim sects, that in recent years they had chosen to identify themselves as a form of Shia but that it was not clear whether that was an accurate description of their beliefs or merely one that they found politically convenient. A comment on a recent post here got me interested, so I did some online research.

The Wikipedia page says that they "follow a branch of the Twelver school of Shia Islam," and goes on to add that "Alawite beliefs are kept secret for outsiders, even for non initiated Alawites. Therefore many rumours about their religious beliefs have arisen," but says nothing about what those beliefs are. 

With a little searching, however, I found quite a detailed account on another web page. I do not know  if it is accurate, although my guess on internal evidence is that it probably is. If so, it sounds as though their beliefs deviate from Islamic orthodoxy as much as Muslim beliefs deviate from Christianity and probably more than Muslim beliefs deviate from Judaism. They apparently believe that Ali was some sort of incarnation of God, reject the Koran, and believe in reincarnation for males but not females.

Which makes me wonder whether the absence of information in the Wikipedia page reflects a successful attempt to defend the identification of Alawites as Shia in support of Assad's alliance with (twelver Shia) Iran.

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P.S. A commenter point out a detailed and scholarly account of Alawites consistent with the one I earlier linked to. It supports my suspicion that their identification as twelver Shia was a matter of politics rather than theology.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Economics: Ideas vs Politics

I was recently corresponding with a fellow economist, a friend and ex-student, and he mentioned having organized a session at some meetings in honor of the late Earl Thompson of UCLA. I responded by commenting that I too was an admirer of Thompson's and remembered James Buchanan having once said something to the effect that Earl had the highest IQ of anyone he knew. My friend described having spent very many hours as a graduate student arguing with Earl Thompson, to their mutual enjoyment.

The reason I think the exchange is interesting is that I, my friend, and Buchanan were all pretty far on the pro-market side of the economics profession. Earl was  not. The first time I encountered him, he was giving a talk (at the public choice center at VPI sometime in the 1970's) offering clever arguments in favor of things that I and most of his audience were against. He did not, ultimately, convince me, but his ideas changed how I thought about certain theoretical issues in an important way, in particular convinced me of the importance of taking account of commitment strategies.

To me, this is a story about how the academic world is supposed to work. What was important about Earl, to all three of us, was not whether he agreed with us but whether he had intelligent and interesting ideas. Which he did. He will be missed.


Monday, September 09, 2013

Obama's Way Out

I do not do a lot of posting here about current political issues, but for this one I want to get my views on record before they become obsolete, either because my prediction is right or because it is wrong. 

Assad's offer to turn over his chemical weapons to international authorities and have them destroyed provides Obama the best opportunity he is likely to get to escape the political trap he has created for himself. If he has any sense he will agree—whether or not he believes Assad will actually do it. The only reason I can think of to expect him not to is the argument that, if he had any sense, he would not have gotten into the trap. But one mistake is a weak basis for that strong a conclusion.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

An Expert Account of What NSA Can Do and How to Protect Yourself

I've just read a piece by Bruce Schneier, a prominent expert on computer security, describing in some detail what the NSA can currently do and how one can or cannot protect oneself. The basic message is that you cannot prevent the NSA from accessing your computer and getting any information you have on it by precautions that ordinary users are likely to use, but they probably won't bother unless they have some special reason to target you. Most NSA spying is done by targeting the network not the end point, and you can, by making the correct choices in encryption software, make it difficult to impossible for the NSA to read your messages without going to the effort to access your computer.

An important point is that the NSA attack on encryption consists in large part of weakening, in non-obvious ways, publicly available encryption, at least sometimes with the cooperation of the firms producing the software. That is important because once the NSA has done it, there is nothing to prevent other people from taking advantage of the weaknesses, provided they can discover them. That makes the NSA efforts, at least potentially, a large benefit to computer criminals interested in stealing trade secrets, credit card numbers, or other valuable information, as well as to foreign governments interested in stealing information for their purposes. As I put it some years back in my Future Imperfect, discussing the desire of law enforcement for ways of overcoming encryption:
Encryption provides the locks for cyberspace. If nobody has strong encryption, everything in cyberspace is vulnerable to a sufficiently sophisticated private criminal. If people have strong encryption but it comes with a mandatory back door accessible in half an hour to any police officer with a court order, then everything in cyberspace is vulnerable to a private criminal with the right contacts. Those locks have billions of dollars’ worth of stuff behind them – money in banks, trade secrets in computers.

From time to time, U.S. officials complain that the Chinese have been breaking into U.S. computers and stealing trade secrets. It now appears that the National Security Agency has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year making it easier for the Chinese to do so.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

A Record for the University of Virginia?

According to a story that appeared after the death of Ronald Coase, both Coase and James Buchanan were deliberately pushed out of the University of Virginia for political reasons.
In 1994, Coase told this reporter how one of his UVA colleagues accidentally received a copy of a secret dossier compiled by then Dean of the Faculty Robert Harris in which Harris outlined a plan to change the economics faculty. Under then President Edgar Shannon, Harris allegedly used non-promotion and non-offer-matching to force Jefferson Center scholars to disperse. Coase left UVA for Chicago in 1964; Buchanan departed four years later.
"I think [the report] was very damning because it makes quite clear what their attitude was and there was actually a policy to get rid of us," Coase said. "My wife once heard someone at a cocktail party describe me as someone to the right of the John Birch society. It wasn't true. You know, I'm English and have a completely different history from most of the other people and am not really much involved at all in American politics."
According to one of the accounts I read (but cannot at the moment find), part of the incentive for UVA to try to get rid of Coase and Buchanan was an implied threat by one of the major foundations not to fund them unless they did.

Both Coase and Buchanan later received Nobel Prizes for their work. According to one commenter on the Coase/UVA story:
UVA also ran off Dr. Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005 for his discovery that H. Pylori causes gastric ulcers. He did the majority of his work — and published his seminal papers— while he was at UVA. The good ole' boys running internal medicine at UVA didn't think much of his work.
The University of Chicago is said to hold the record for the largest number of Nobel Prizes won by its faculty. Judging by these account, UVA may hold the record for the largest number of (future) Nobel Prizes lost.


Friday, September 06, 2013

Legal Consequences of NSA et. al.?

I am a law professor but not a lawyer, and so would like opinions from those who know more than I do about current American law as to the legal consequences of the facts coming out of Snowdon's revelations. For instance ...  .

It appears that U.S. firms deliberately put back doors into the encryption provided by their programs in order to let the NSA access material. If such firms advertised their encryption as secure, are they at risk of suits for damages, possibly class actions on behalf of all customers who bought software whose characteristics had been deliberately misrepresented?

It appears that the DEA has been using information provided by a massive search of phone company records while deliberately misrepresenting at trial the source of their information. If it is arguable that the information was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, does it follow that the prosecution in all such cases failed its legal obligation to provide the defense with relevant facts—in this case about how evidence used in the trial was obtained, information that the defense could have used to argue that such evidence should be excluded? I assume that issue does not arise if it is  clear that the DEA was entitled to the information it got, but does arise even if it is not clear that it wasn't. If it arises, do we end up with a situation similar to what happened in Massachusetts when it was discovered that a large number of drug test results used at trial were fraudulent, hence that a large number of convictions were tainted?

Whether or not the DEA was violating the rights of people whose records were searched, were its agents engaged in multiple acts of perjury and its higher ups in large scale suborning of perjury by deliberately misrepresenting to courts the source of evidence introduced at trial? The usual oath is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which it seems obvious they were not doing. Is it sufficient that they did not make any direct statements that were false, supposing that to be the case?

Is there some way of bringing before the court system the question of whether mass wiretapping by the NSA was or was not constitutional, now that the legal basis for it has been made public? Could someone sue to enjoin them from continuing their activities or to require them to destroy data collected (arguably) illegally? Who would have standing—anyone whose phone data might have been collected? If such a suit succeeded, are there any legal consequences for past activities, civil or criminal?

One obvious problem in this situation is that criminal prosecution is controlled by the state. The Director of National Intelligence has confessed to committing perjury, although not in those words, but there appears to be zero chance that he will be indicted for it. Could federal officials be charged at the state level with violations of state wiretapping laws, supposing there are any? Sued in a civil case?

As should be obvious, I have no clear idea what legal recourse there is if, as seems entirely possible, various parts of the government have been doing things they had no legal right to do. But perhaps someone else does.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Ignorance, Rhetoric, or Am I Missing Something?

"Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war," Kerry said.
(multiple news stories)
It is unclear from the stories whether Kerry's reference was specifically to Sarin gas, which is what Assad's forces apparently used, or to poison gas more generally. If the latter, his list ought to have included Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Kaiser Wilhelm, since mustard gas was used by both sides in World War I. It was not, however, used by either side in WWII.

If Kerry was referring to Sarin gas in particular, there is a different problem. As best I can tell, Hitler's government manufactured Sarin gas during WWII but never used it. After the end of the war it was also manufactured (but not used) by both the U.S. and the USSR. It is possible that Kerry is aware of some use of Sarin by the Nazis that my web search on the subject missed. But my guess is that he simply did not bother to check his historical facts before giving in to the temptation to link Assad to Hitler.

P.S. Some commenters point out that Kerry might have been referring, not to the use of poison gas in warfare, but to the use of poison gas to kill people while a war was going on, something of which Hitler was guilty. One problem with that interpretation, aside from the use of gas in warfare in WWI, is that the U.S. has used gas for executions since the 1920's. So if that was his point, his list should have included FDR, Truman and Eisenhower, as well as the heads of state of a considerable number of other countries.

What I find disturbing about this incident is not that Kerry was demonstrating either historical ignorance or deliberate dishonesty but that practically nobody seems to have noticed.