Category Archives: Society

Why I don’t watch video link replies

In brief:  Videos are not often a good way to present evidence. If you’re trying to convince me of something, I prefer to see a clear, concise argument in text form. Thanks for understanding.


When I’m in a discussion on the Internet and someone makes an unusual or unlikely-sounding claim, I will keep an open mind and ask for evidence. Sometimes the reply comes in the form of a video. My general rule now is that I do not watch these videos, with a few exceptions*. Here’s why.

  1. Video is an effective tool for conveying emotion; it’s less effective for conveying information. If you have a clear, concise argument, text is generally preferable. Emotions can be fantastic, but they’re not great evidence.
  2. Watching videos is much more time-consuming than reading a concise article. In an article I can skim, pace myself according to how easy or difficult the language and arguments are, and often I can quickly identify whether the writer is making sense or not. In a video, it might be several minutes in before I find out whether the argument is based on carefully weighed scientific research, or on an assertion that space lizards are conspiring with George Soros to give us all vaccines that make us believe in global warming.
  3. Text lends itself better to structure, which aids the presenting and weighing of evidence.
  4. Responding to text is much more straightforward – I can copy and quote as appropriate. It’s easier to get on the same page about what precisely was said, claimed, proven.
  5. Text lends itself much better to providing referencing, and it’s much easier to find the references as they will be linked from the text where a particular claim is made, or found by scrolling down.
  6. My experience with replies in video form has not been positive. Let’s assume that your video reply is different – more rigorous, logical, persuasive and honest. If we don’t know each other yet, I don’t yet have a way to tell you apart from other people on the Internet who sent me links to terrible videos. So start with a clear and concise argument in text form, and we can discuss the video later, perhaps.

*The exceptions:

  • When the video comes later in the conversation, when we have already come to some agreement and can see each other’s perspectives.
  • When the video come from someone I know, with whom I have often had discussions in the past.
  • When we are both members of a community that places a high value on reasoned, civil discussion.

So if you send me a video link and I respond with this post, know that I mean this with respect and good faith, and that it’s part of my attempt to properly understand your argument and weigh the evidence.

When the shepherd loses faith: The Clergy Project

A Christian acquaintance studied ancient languages and New Testament history. With limited options after graduation, he went to work for a mega-church with beliefs and materialistic values in opposition to his own.

His desire to escape was only partly offset by a sense that he was doing some good, bringing some sense to the naivete and madness he saw in the church where he worked. Escape never came, and nearly 20 years later he is still trapped, and his family with him.

My acquaintance’s role is not as a pastor (or minister, or priest), but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of pastors, ministers and priests who lose their faith but continue in their role. I’m familiar with this concept from my years as an evangelical Christian, many years ago the concern is sometimes expressed for the students in theological colleges, Bible colleges and seminaries taught “liberal” ideas, and “falling away from the Lord”. I hadn’t thought of it from the perspective of those individuals, and what a terrible, lonely experience that must be. As Daniel Dennett states:

“They’re like gays in the 50s without gaydar. They don’t dare raise the issue with other clergy they know whom they suspect are just as much non-believers as they are.” Source (6 min video).

It may be that they continue to hold the same values and see good in their work, but they are also likely to feel trapped, with a lack of experience and training that would make it difficult to find other employment, and a necessary secrecy that makes it very difficult to seek support.

In response, The Clergy Project has been established – a confidential online community for current and former religious leaders in vocational ministry who do not hold supernatural beliefs. I wish them well.

If you wish to find out more:

Finall, here is one former pastor describing his own journey:

Energy subsidies – online course

Energy subsidies are a complex and enormously important issue, having a major impact on climate change (and thus on the fate of our world, and how livable it remains), on health (via air pollution, especially in developing world cities), as well as distorting our economies. And the level of public debate around energy subsidies and taxes is very poor, with conflicting claims made by the fossil fuel industry, advocates of renewable energy, and advocates of nuclear.

Energy Subsidy Reform, a free, 2-week, online MOOC style course run by the IMF on edX, sounds like a much-needed corrective.

“Whether you are a civil servant working on economic issues for your country or simply interested in better understanding issues related to energy subsidies, this course will provide hands-on training on the design of successful reforms of energy subsidies.”

How do you decide to trust someone?

How do you know when to trust someone? How do you decide? Here are my thoughts – please comment if you know something I don’t.

(Perhaps I should file this under the bleeding obvious but sometimes the obvious bears repeating. This is also a way of asking for your deeper insights.)

  • Watch how they treat those with less power, e.g. wait staff or shop assistants.
  • Take note if they enjoy putting others down. Not just frustration, not just poor social skills, but actively building themselves up by pulling others down – this could be immaturity or something more dangerous, but it’s not healthy. And if they seem to enjoy being nasty, even in the most witty and charming way, take it as a warning sign. (Actually, especially if they’re witty and charming about it.)
  • You don’t really know someone until you say no to them. (An unsourced bit of wisdom.)
  • Give them time. Toxic personalities can seem wonderful for a while (charm is one characteristic of a psychopath) but they usually wear thin in time. Full-blown narcissists take around 2.5 hours to lose their charm, on average* – others may keep their appeal for longer. If you’re in a close relationship with the person (e.g. romantic or family relationship) it’s hard to be objective, and so you may still fall for the facade, even after you’ve seen the disturbing truth behind it, and even when you’ve been warned.
  • Gut feeling. I wouldn’t rely on this alone and it depends how much opportunity you’ve had to train your unconscious mind through observing and experiencing people being trustworthy and untrustworthy. Personally, my intuition occasionally gives me a warning (and I’ve suffered for ignoring it). I take this as a warning not to put myself in a vulnerable position, rather than as a final judgment.

Final comments:

  • Someone may be honest but not trustworthy – e.g. careless, unreliable or lacking in empathy. They may make a good friend, but know their limits and be willing to say no (nicely but directly).
  • Completely untrustworthy people are rare. While being cautious, give plenty of space to let good people into your life.

*The 2.5 hours comes from an article I remember reading about a psychological study. My imperfect memory + most studies never being replicated => take this with a grain of salt.

An “Awww” moment from Malaysia

“I don’t want the whole world to know.”

Hey, here’s an idea – let’s put it on YouTube!

But seriously, even though it’s Malaysian government feel-good propaganda, glossing over the country’s institutionalized racism, it’s a sweet video.

(It won’t be obvious to some, but he’s ethnic Chinese, and she’s Malay. There’s a lot of historical and ongoing prejudice, but hopefully it’s on the way out.)

The changing meanings of marriage

Traditional marriage is a diverse and wondrous thing – in terms of ceremonies, day-to-day arrangements, how decisions are made, even how many people are in the marriage. The “traditional marriage” as a norm is a relatively recent arrangement, and isn’t a clear norm in religious texts.

The idea that marriages must be registered with a government is also not universal or traditional – common law marriage being the obvious exception. An obvious answer to all the fuss is to say that the government has nothing to do with the word “marriage”. Leave these decisions to civil society. If a religious institution will only marry straight couples, then gay couples can go somewhere more inclusive and be married there. 

As for tradition and history, brutal traditions around the world have been banned, from slavery and genital mutilation to foot-binding. Blatant discrimination is less extreme but no more defensible. However, an open exploration of marriage and its changing meanings is good thinking fodder for current debates. Here’s a good exploration on Australian radio: Marriage, Australian style – Rear Vision – ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Audio and transcript available. Program summary:

Debate over same-sex marriage is nothing new. Just who can marry and the circumstances under which they can later divorce has been contested territory for as long as the institution of matrimony has been with us. 

The same

“If people in straight relationships feel that my song mirrors theirs, enough to play it at their wedding, then aren’t our experiences the same? Isn’t my experience of love as good and as valid as theirs? And, if so, then why can’t I get married too?… I’ve had the honour of singing at four of my friends’ weddings. I was flattered to be asked each time and humbled to be part of the celebration. I wrote a song years ago called Now I Love Someone which is a great wedding song. I was touched. I’m not sure if any of them knew I’d written it about a woman.”

So says singer Holly Throsby.

I’m about as conventional as it gets, in my personal orientation – and that is entirely irrelevant to my judgement of people like Holly Throsby. I have no vested interest in who she loves, other than to wish them happiness. Discriminatory laws against loving the “wrong” kind of person are absurd and offensive – and so last century.

Why is this even an issue? What regressive forces maintain fear and discrimination in this day and age? What will take before we no longer need to even say “GLBTI,” and can just say “people”?

Loomio – collaborative online decision-making

Loomio is a user-friendly tool for group decision-making.

Creating a world where it’s easy for anyone to participate in decisions that affect them.

Loomio.org appears to be an intelligently thought through approach to the thorny problem of online group democracy. It’s discussed in Can Social Software Change the World? Loomio Just Might – worth a read. Here’s a snippet:

“The key,” says Benjamin Knight, one of the members of the core team developing Loomio, “is building shared understanding before a decision is reached by the group.” He adds, “That means that when you get to the outcome, it’s not that everyone has to agree to the outcome, they just have to agree that its the best outcome the group can reach at that time.”

Murder is a “moral” act… so we need to question our moral impulses

Edit: Some friends on Facebook interpreted this post as saying that we’d be better off with no morals. No one is saying that here. I propose that we need a very small set of well considered morals, and a lot more ability to communicate, to negotiate. and to accept difference. Some argued that we need better morals rather than no morals (which is a straw man argument – no one has argued for no morals). I see that argument but I disagree, Morals regarding sexual orientation, or how a woman dresses or who she talks to, are best abandoned, and do not need anything to replace them other than mutual respect between us. 

I’ve edited the title to hopefully make it clearer that I’m questioning the moral impulses that arise from our monkey brains, rather than proposing that morals be entirely abandoned.)

Most murders and many wars stem from moral outrage and judgement* – primitive instincts that derive from a hodgepodge of causes.  Steven Pinker, psychologist, cognitive scientist who has written on why violence has declined) says that we’d be better off with less morality in the world.

  • I realize that could be a controversial claim, but motives for murder in Australia, for example, generally relate to a personal conflict rather than killing during a robbery, for example. 

Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard, and the author of:

among his other books.

A successful local food hub – what it takes

A local food story – an apparent success story – is Mad River Food Hub. The Co.Exist article is a nice long read, but for those like me who want to get to the nub, here are the highlights.

After a long intro about unprofitable and failing farmers’ markets, we get to local food hubs, and the hope that a system of local “food hubs” can make local food work by processing and bundling foods and delivering them to us. Wonderful idea – but like farmers markets, most food hubs are not thriving.

The only way farmers are going to make more money is by getting more value out of their products.

It comes down to this:

How do you “value-add”? “Through processing. Through delaying the availability of a product until you can get a higher price–storage. By getting your product to places that you haven’t had it in the past–distribution. And by running your business better–incubation.”

That’s Robin Morris, the brains behind the Mad River Food Hub. But even with these value-adds, Morris couldn’t make the numbers work for a profitable – economically sustainable – food hub, until he did the numbers for meat. Meat is a year-round business, with potential for significant value-add from processing and curing, products selling for up to $24/lb for dry-cured prosciutto.

Now, meat raises ethical issues, especially if you’re vegetarian. Personally, since I know people will continue to eat meat, I’m happy to see any move away from massive factory farms which cause enormous suffering. There’s no guarantee that local artisans will treat animals less cruelly, but at least there’s a likelihood of free range and organic products, which can be a significant improvement.

Back to the article – a key takeaway is that Morris approached his hub with a tough business sense, to make the hub and its food food producers profitable. The hub invested heavily in facilities so that its food-producing entrepreneurs didn’t have to – the hub is an incubator, allowing local food entrepreneurs access to the (expensive) infrastructure for launching their business, in exchange for a cut of the sales.

Finding a niche for the hub has also been key – the hub doesn’t compete at cut-throat price points to sell to institutional clients such as cafeterias. Of course – a small or mid-sized operation could never compete on price, and could only profitably supply an unusually understanding institution that committed to supporting ethical food.

In making this work, Robin Morris’s business sense and careful thinking about numbers and scale are crucial:

Cutting out the middleman to get more of the customer’s money into the hands of the farmer may sound great in a TED talk, but the reality is that there is no way to challenge the economies of scale of industrial food production, which is propped up by subsidies, kickbacks, and money-saving environmental shortcuts…

As a result, businesses are growing that otherwise would have no hope, and Mad River Food Hub operates without grants. The hub produces salamis, soups and “Rookie’s Root Beer” among products, and also packs and distributes farm produce. This approach makes local food possible. 

Says a soup maker, the first anchor client of the hub:

Just to fit out a place like this and meet USDA regulations? Let’s say $250,000… Easily. This allowed me to skip that gray area where I’d take on a lot of debt to ramp up and expand, and basically gamble that I could meet all the monthly payments.

This soup maker is also a CSA farmer, using the hub to pack and distribute produce. He sees the power of the infrastructure to make CSA usable and attractive:

The share shows up at work, it’s boxed, it’s got their name on it, and they walk out the door with it. The potential is really big… if I can drop it off on their doorstep, they sign right up.

This takes local food beyond the eco-nuts, those of us who go out of our way and pay extra to support it. With its efficiencies and its distribution system, it might just make for local food that is actually sustainable – because driving miles out of your way to pick up your organic veggies certainly isn’t.

See How To Build A Local Food System, To Make Local Food Actually Work | Co.Exist.

More reading on local food: Locally Deliciousbuy from Amazon or read on Appropedia.

Dehumanization studies

This talk by David Livingstone Smith (Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New England in Maine) scratches the surface of an important, disturbing topic, and at 11:32 he points out an important omission in our study of history and war:

if we really do care about humanity and decency and peace, we should treat dehumanization with the same seriousness that we treated cholera and smallpox. We should devote resources to studying it. We should devote resources to disarming it. But the fact is, to the best of my knowledge and I know quite a bit about this, there is nowhere in the world where there is a center, where there is a department where there is a government agency, where there is an NGO specifically devoted to the study of dehumanization… If we want our future to be less hideous than our past… then this has got to change – it’s time we took dehumanization seriously.

I’m aware of many places for the study of the Holocaust and other genocides, as well as centers for peace and conflict studies – these could no doubt offer great insight. But to specifically study the psychological phenomena behind the atrocities we want to end, that would be a great step towards peace.