Open thread: Chinese censorship

One mechanism of control used by the Chinese government is censorship of the media and the internet. Reportedly, this has been so comprehensive and successful that young people in China are unlikely to know about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

This is an important example of how governments are often the biggest threat to internet users.

The Economist recently reported on government manipulation of Chinese television, as well as on academic publishing.

All this is relevant in part because of how China is a rising power but not a free society, as well as because of what it reveals about how the Chinese Communist Party maintains popular legitimacy and control.

Contentious politics scholars can be inconsistent with their definitions

For analyzing climate change activism, the contentious politics theoretical framework associated with Doug McAdam (a sociology professor at Stanford), Sidney Tarrow (a professor of government and sociology at Cornell), and Charles Tilly (formerly a social science professor at Columbia) has much to recommend it. In particular, it incorporates many explanatory factors used in the related social movements literature (like the construction of meaning through frames, seeing protests as performances, and the importance of political opportunities and mobilizing structures) while also looking at phenomena broader than social movements, including revolutions.

One just criticism of the literature is that terms are not rigorously defined and consistently used. Ideas like “cycles of contention” are central to the literature, but every author seems to think of them a bit differently, and the same person even uses the idea differently in one text as opposed to another.

I’m only partway through, but so far McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly’s book Dynamics of Contention seems to demonstrate a lot of the problematically obscure language use within the literature. Generally, I find that this literature is best when it sticks closely to empirical cases, rather than wandering out into broad theorizing. Long discussions of abstract nouns like “mechanisms” versus “processes” versus “episodes” can be especially hard to draw useful inspiration from.

I have a stack of other contentious politics books picked up from the library today, with the aim of further fleshing out the theoretical framework for my proposal and finding additional examples of methodologically similar research.

Gabor Maté on addiction

“Nothing sways them from the habit—not illness, not the sacrifice of love and relationships, not the loss of all earthly goods, not the crushing of their dignity, not the fear of dying. The drive is that relentless… If human life was so simple that people learned from negative consequences, well then human history would be very different… The drugs solve problems in people’s lives, in the short term. Of course, they create problems in the long term… When you stress animals, they’re more likely to engage in addictive behaviours… Our whole social policy’s based on stressing the addict—and then we hope to redeem them—which flies in the face of science, not to mention human compassion… We’re punishing people for having been abused in the first place.”

Sometimes working for the ACLU is fun

Step 1: British comedian John Oliver produces an absurd segment about coal CEO Bob Murray:

In it, Oliver acknowledges Murray’s history of litigiousness toward critics and challenges him to do his worst.

Step 2: Murray sues Oliver for defamation in West Virginia circuit court

Step 3: As reported in Slate, Jamie Lynn Crofts of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia files one of the world’s funnier legal documents in the form of an amicus brief to the court

As John Stuart Mill said about freedom of speech in general: “Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case”.

Political speech, news reporting, and satire all deserve special protection in the public interest. Hopefully this whole back and forth will discourage those who face criticism in the future from seeking to suppress it through the courts of a free society.

Diplomacy by toast

In another attempt to dissuade Pakistan from its nuclear path, Kissinger visited Pakistan in August 1976. At the same time, U.S. elections were sparking debates, and Democrat Jimmy Carter’s agenda specifically targeted Kissinger and his relaxed response to India’s nuclear test. As Dennis Kux writes, “Kissinger and Ford were under pressure to demonstrate that they were doing everything possible to prevent Pakistan from continuing its efforts to match India’s nuclear capability.”

Thus Kissinger’s second trip to Pakistan was an attempt to remedy his mistakes. He arrived with an offer of 110 A-7 attack bombers for the Pakistani Air force in exchange for canceling the reprocessing plant purchase [from France], indicating that Congress would most likely approve such a deal. And as a stick, he brandished a possible Democratic victory, hinting that when in power, Carter would certainly make an example of Pakistan. Since that meeting, the popular myth in Pakistan has been that Kissinger threatened Bhutto with “a horrible example,” meant as an ultimatum.

At an official dinner in the city of Lahore, Kissinger and Bhutto engaged in nuclear banter in the midst of toasts. Raising his glass, Bhutto declared, “[Lahore] is our reprocessing center and we cannot in any way curb the reprocessing center of Pakistan.” When Kissinger’s turn for the toast came, he replied, “All governments must constantly ‘reprocess’ themselves and decide what is worth reprocessing.”

Khan, Feroz Hassan. Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb. Stanford University Press; Stanford. 2012. p. 136-7


The technical term “supergrade” has had a pair of distinctly American meanings:

(a) A supergrade was the civilian equivalent of an Army general

(b) Supergrade is industry parlance for plutonium alloy bearing an exceptionally high fraction of Pu-239 (>95%), leaving a very low amount of Pu-240 which is a gamma emitter in addition to being a high spontaneous fission isotope

Automated voice impersonation

I’ve written before about some problems with biometric security: it seems convenient to be able to use facial recognition to log in to your computer, until you find your co-workers doing it with colour photocopies of your picture.

Computers aren’t the only context where we use biometrics for identification. “Don’t you recognize my voice?” has been used for decades for authentication over the phone, whether implicitly or explicitly. Now, we’re approaching the day when faking anybody’s voice and having it say anything you like is getting near.

Expect disruption on every level, from teens pranking each other to abusive harassers terrifying victims in new ways to more election-altering political fraud.

Learning to write as an undergraduate

Most undergraduate students would really benefit from an intensive one-on-one tutoring program in writing essays. Even among third and fourth year students, it’s something most of them can’t or don’t do competently. While U of T offers some writing resources, you can’t really turn up at a writing centre with an unstructured, ungrammatical, and unconvincing draft and have someone teach you the basics of being credible and convincing in an hour or so.

It would be better to find a subject that is of particular interest to the student, and then begin with some lessons on what distinguishes credible sources and how to conduct research. The tutoring could then progress to a review of the basic essay template people should have learned in high school or earlier: an introduction with a clear thesis and a basic outline of the argument, body paragraphs with organized and coherent lines of evidence and argumentation, and a conclusion that wraps up and perhaps points to some broader implications.

They need to be guided away from both mindlessly vague claims with no substantive content and from the wild extrapolation and hyperbole where ludicrous statements are made about how the small topic of their paper will have vast, automatic, permanent, global effects. This one little UN initiative will save the world’s oceans, or one tweak in parliamentary procedure will save Canadian democracy, etc.

They could also be taught to edit. Clearly, most of them don’t even skim through their own writing looking for awkwardly phrased and ambiguous passages or language problems. They could, however, be taught to go beyond that to really think about making an argument and being convincing: evaluating whether each sentence and paragraph is serving their overall purpose, and how to hold the interest and win the respect of the reader.

Doing all this one-on-one would overcome the limitations of drop-in writing help, where the tutor doesn’t know the student’s strengths and weaknesses and can only provide ad hoc suggestions and corrections rather than a broad and coordinated program of improvement. A bespoke approach would let tutors avoid boring students by rehashing things they already understand, while letting the student focus on subject matter where they have actual passion.

Such a program of tutoring could do a lot to enhance what is almost the only tangible skill developed during an undergraduate program in the humanities or social “sciences”, and it would be a small investment of time and money compared to the undergraduate program as a whole.