Square Brackets: a podcast about elisions, ambiguities and [our] confusions

Podcasts continue to increase in popularity, and after years of being encouraged to try my hand at producing one, Greg Andrews and I decided to do just that. Square Brackets is the result, and after releasing a weekly episode for the past two months, it’s probably time to announce it here on Synapses.

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On banning the Christchurch manifesto

Ardern New Zealand

The mosque murders in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 made me aware that New Zealand has a “chief censor”, which seems a somewhat quaint title in the 21st Century. It’s nevertheless true that someone (or some group of people) have to make determinations about when – if ever – something should be deemed unsuitable for public distribution, and the title of “chief censor” is at least unambiguous.

I’m not going to discuss if speech should ever be censored in this post, having addressed it on numerous prior occasions, for example here and here. To summarise my view, I regard free speech as a very important value, that should be among our top priorities, but I don’t think it always, or necessarily, trumps any other value.

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Who to vote for: South African National Elections 2019

De Lille Good Party

For those of us who don’t reflexively vote for the same political party in every election, regardless of contextual details like their performance, their choice of candidates, and of course their policy platforms, the 2019 National Elections (May 8) might well be the most confounding choice we’ve ever faced.

None of the candidates are not sub-optimal in some form or another. The ANC’s candidate list includes people who have been directly implicated in “state capture” and corruption. While it’s true that they are eligible to be members of Parliament – as Ace Magashule says, “Anybody who has not been found guilty by a court of law is on the list” – you’d hope that the bar would be set higher than “not a proven criminal”.

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Raising the dead: too many questions, but more than enough answers.

resurrection image

South Africa has a “spiritual vampires” problem, to adapt Susan Gerbic and the Guerrilla Skeptic’s term (“grief vampires”) for people like John Edward, who claim to speak to the dead. But then, I suppose you could say that the whole world does, in that religious leaders who make a living off telling people things they themselves don’t actually believe can be found everywhere.

I’ve written about some of South Africa’s exploitative evangelists in the past, including Prophet (Detective) Lethobo and Penuel Mnguni, as well as about the CRL Commission’s investigation into harmful religious practices and whether they should be regulated.

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Two South African stories, one stupid, one more serious

Peppa Pig

“The Pan South African Language Board says that parents should be concerned if children often speak in the adopted British accent from the popular animated TV series Peppa Pig.”

So says Sibusiso Nkosi, of the aforementioned Pan South African Language Board, because they worry that some accents are perceived to signal positive traits like intelligence more than others do, and they want to encourage South African kids to keep speaking in their “African accent”, so as to not reinforce this perception.

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Weekend reading in ethics, featuring Marie Kondo

Nihilanand - anti-natalism

Here are three pieces that have been open in my browser for a few days now, while I kept postponing the urge to write something substantial about each of them. Instead, I’ll simply present them for your consideration, with a paragraph or two on selected areas of possible interest.

First, Bruce Schneier on blockchains, and how it’s debatable that they live up to what many consider one of their key promises: to “displace, reshape, or eliminate trust“. Schneier is an American cryptographer who has written extensively on security issues (his work on airport “security theater” is well-worth reading), and he certainly speaks with authority, even if you might not agree with his analysis.

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Data harvesting, Facebook, and the “10 year challenge”.

Image of an eye on PC screen

To be fair, I haven’t seen much concern expressed on the theme of this tweet,

but with over 5 000 retweets (at time of writing), it certainly seems like some people are convinced, and possibly concerned. I’m however not inclined to think that the “10 year challenge” is a sinister ploy by Facebook to harvest this freely-volunteered data, in order to improve its facial recognition technology.

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The Tyranny of Opinion – Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford

The post title refers to Russell Blackford’s most recent book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism. Blackford is an annoyingly prolific writer, who has published numerous works of both non-fiction and fiction, as well as having edited at least 5 volumes of essays that I’m aware of.

By way of disclosure, I also regard him as a friend, and he was kind enough to write a blurb for my and Caleb Lack’s 2016 book, Critical Reasoning, Science and Pseudoscience. Despite these connections, this note on the book is unsolicited, and entirely sincere.

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Computational propaganda, clickbait, and personal responsibility

A DPRK propaganda poster

The proliferation of misinformation on social media – or even just partisan or sensationalistic treatments of politics, science and human relations – could reasonably be considered a threat to democracy itself.

When you add computation propaganda to the mix, where bots are deployed to manipulate public opinion, filter-bubbles form even more readily, and you can now find a closed and self-reinforcing community to reinforce just about any view you can imagine.

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The “Journal of Controversial Ideas”

Jeff McMahan, Peter Singer and Francesca Minerva plan to launch the “Journal of Controversial Ideas” sometime in 2019. The journal will allow for (but not insist on) articles to be published under a pseudonym, ostensibly in response to a prevailing culture of self-censorship and fear of expressing opinions on contentious topics.

McMahan and Singer are both philosophy professors, well-known for engaging with complex topics in an accessible manner, and in Singer’s case, also no stranger to controversy. According to a headline in the Guardian from 2009, he might in fact be “The most dangerous man in the world” (he isn’t).

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