Blog Ipsa Loquitur

An opinion piece by “The Editors” at Bloomberg View thinks the government is getting ripped off in the student loan game:

It makes sense for the government to encourage young people to go to college, and it’s right to deal compassionately with cases of genuine hardship. But a better deal for taxpayers can be struck.

First, instead of offering affordable income-based repayment as an option, make it automatic, as Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida proposed last year. That way, small initial payments from graduates not making much money would be balanced by larger initial payments from graduates making more.

Second, stop forgiving loans after 20 years. For those on low-to-moderate incomes, capping payments in relation to pay is a generous concession in its own right. And the federal government already offers some loan forgiveness to graduates who enter any one of dozens of public-service professions. Adding the promise of forgiveness at a fixed point in time, regardless of the borrower’s financial circumstances, is an incentive to overborrow and a disincentive to early repayment. A system that forgave debt in cases of hardship would be defensible, as would allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy (which amounts to the same thing). Automatic forgiveness has no such rationale.

The Bloomberg View: offering forgiveness at a fixed point in time is an incentive to overborrow and a disincentive to early repayment. The very next sentence: ‘hey, also we could just let student loans be discharged in bankruptcy.’

Are you kidding me? If student loans could be discharged in bankruptcy, I’d go to law school again, borrow the entire $200,000 cost and declare bankruptcy as I moonwalked across the damn stage. There’s an argument to be made for sensible reforms to the student loan regime in this country, but this isn’t it.

Filed on under Motion to Point and Laugh

Former NBA player Charles Barkley doesn’t like analytics:

During TNT’s studio show following the Houston Rockets’ victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night, Charles Barkley ripped Rockets GM Daryl Morey – and the NBA’s burgeoning advanced stats movement by extension – saying: “I’ve always believed analytics was crap.[…]”

“The NBA is about talent,” Barkley added. “All these guys who run these organizations who talk about analytics, they have one thing in common – they’re a bunch of guys who have never played the game, and they never got the girls in high school, and they just want to get in the game.”

Having an intuitive mastery is one thing. Having a demonstrably empirical basis for decision making is another. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Fetishizing the intuitive and dismissing the empirical by hashtag humble bragging about how many girls you got in high school is just sad, man. If the statute of limitations on your teenage years hasn’t expired, neither has the statute of limitations on your support of exploitative prostitution.

Filed on under This Doesn't Add Up

Jason Stoddard, co-founder of an audio equipment (think headphones and amplifiers and such) company, wrote an exhaustive accounting of what it’s like to try to run a small business selling physical products. I do desperately hope folks in MBA programs learn about the sorts of hustles that resellers run on suppliers. I’m sure I’d fall prey to stuff like that my first time out.

Stoddard’s piece is centered around what it’s like to deal with as it sells his company’s products. It’s incredibly informative. The part that I found most intriguing was (naturally) about intellectual property disputes on Amazon’s site.

The Amazon Brand Registry. Okay, let’s say you’re selling on Amazon…and one day, you find that you’ve lost the “buy box.” That is, you’re not the first result listed—when someone clicks on “buy,” they’re not buying from you. Worse, your replacement is claiming to sell the exact same product you make…but they are not you. They’re not your brand. Their product might do something similar, but it’s most definitely not you…and you don’t have any authorized distributors.

Impossible? Not at all. It happened to Rina, in her business. Multiple times. […] So, when this happened, she went to Amazon and said, “What the heck? (but spelled with F and U). Amazon eventually replied that she had to get into the brand registry to protect her brand — something they offered to [Stoddard’s company] at the beginning.

One catch: she had to have a registered trademark.

Yes, that’s right: with Amazon, the rules change depending on who you are…and who you are rhymes exactly with “how much you sell.” Well, okay. She went out and got a registered trademark. Her business was already legally sound, as an LLC. She applied for Brand Registry, and got it. Problem over, right?

Wrong. To this day, she has to chase off competitors who glom on to her listings. Big deal, right? She’s the brand owner and registered trademark holder.

Again, wrong. Amazon doesn’t understand—or seem to care—that a manufacturer with a registered trademark and no distributors is the ONLY entity that can list its particular products. It does NOT allow the trademark holder to approve and disapprove resellers of their product.

If you’re thinking to yourself “how has Amazon not been sued into the ground?” you’ve got good company. Well, you’ve got okay company. Well, you’ve got me. Dear Reader, the fact is that if Stoddard is telling Rina’s tale accurately, that’s a huge problem for Amazon. Why’s that?

Filed on under Legal Theory

There’s a great big lawsuit in front of the Supreme Court next month. Actually, they’re all big. The one I’m thinking of is King v. Burwell, and it’s yet another lawsuit over the Constitutionality of Obamacare (née the Affordable Care Act). There’s been a lot of hand-wringing over the law, and litigation over the hand-wringing, and then hand-wringing over the litigation. Boy, isn’t the 21st century great?

In the King lawsuit, the plaintiffs say the government is breaking its own law. Currently, states which didn’t create a web site for their residents to buy health insurance use the federal web site, (It turns out squatters got the – just another example of incompetence in federal IT practices.) The plaintiffs in King argue that the law says people in states using the federal site don’t get subsidized insurance; only people in states that have their own insurance site get discounts.

Put simply, they’re wrong and it’s kind of absurd that anyone takes this claim seriously.

Filed on under The News

Among philosophers of the mind, there seems to be no consensus about what precisely consciousness means. What does it mean for a human brain to perceive itself perceiving other things? How do we do it? What about our brain creates this phenomenon? Why does it apparently only happen to us? For decades, scientists have worked to create artificial intelligence – a machine that is aware and that thinks – and we’re not even sure what the “organic” version means. (Also, science has made just about zero progress in the last 50 years, so these philosophers have plenty of time.)

Oliver Burkeman has a great article describing what some call The Hard Problem: “why are we awake?” We talk, we listen, we run, we laugh, etc. We can program machines to do all of these things, and the machine isn’t conscious. Why do we feel something? Why does listening to someone you love call your name make you feel? Why aren’t we just squishy pink robots?

This is The Hard Problem in a nutshell, and philosophers answer it in a typically philosophical way; by dividing into schools:

Not everybody agrees there is a Hard Problem to begin with – making the whole debate kickstarted by [David] Chalmers an exercise in pointlessness. Daniel Dennett, the high-profile atheist and professor at Tufts University outside Boston, argues that consciousness, as we think of it, is an illusion: there just isn’t anything in addition to the spongy stuff of the brain, and that spongy stuff doesn’t actually give rise to something called consciousness. Common sense may tell us there’s a subjective world of inner experience – but then common sense told us that the sun orbits the Earth, and that the world was flat.

Consciousness, according to Dennett’s theory, is like a conjuring trick: the normal functioning of the brain just makes it look as if there is something non-physical going on. To look for a real, substantive thing called consciousness, Dennett argues, is as silly as insisting that characters in novels, such as Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter, must be made up of a peculiar substance named “fictoplasm”; the idea is absurd and unnecessary, since the characters do not exist to begin with. […]

Meanwhile, in the “no but seriously come on, consciousness is a thing and it’s not just a trick your mind plays on itself – if there’s no consciousness, then who is there to play a trick upon” crowd:

To Dennett’s opponents, he is simply denying the existence of something everyone knows for certain: their inner experience of sights, smells, emotions and the rest. […] It’s like asserting that cancer doesn’t exist, then claiming you’ve cured cancer; more than one critic of Dennett’s most famous book, Consciousness Explained, has joked that its title ought to be Consciousness Explained Away. Dennett’s reply is characteristically breezy: explaining things away, he insists, is exactly what scientists do.

When physicists first concluded that the only difference between gold and silver was the number of subatomic particles in their atoms, he writes, people could have felt cheated, complaining that their special “goldness” and “silveriness” had been explained away. But everybody now accepts that goldness and silveriness are really just differences in atoms. However hard it feels to accept, we should concede that consciousness is just the physical brain, doing what brains do.”

Well, that started as “the other camp,” but then Dennett gets some more shots in, because he’s Dennett and he’s good at that.

The whole article is worth a read. You can program a robot to jerk its hand away from scalding water, just like humans learn to do. We feel fear, or panic, or a rush, or something when we get that close to scalding water. Does the robot feel anything? Is that why its program works? Is that why our program works?

Consider the following, from Burkeman’s article:

…occasionally, science has dropped tantalising hints that this spooky extra ingredient might be real. In the 1970s, at what was then the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London, the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz encountered a patient, known as “DB”, with a blind spot in his left visual field, caused by brain damage. Weiskrantz showed him patterns of striped lines, positioned so that they fell on his area of blindness, then asked him to say whether the stripes were vertical or horizontal.

Naturally, DB protested that he could see no stripes at all. But Weiskrantz insisted that he guess the answers anyway – and DB got them right almost 90% of the time. Apparently, his brain was perceiving the stripes without his mind being conscious of them. One interpretation is that DB was a semi-zombie, with a brain like any other brain, but partially lacking the magical add-on of consciousness.

Clearly, like DB, we’re not seeing the whole picture here.

Are these emotions and feelings and the general experience of consciousness simply the way an operating system calls functions on a squishy pink robot? One of the world’s leading neuroscientists says that it’s not impossible that his iPhone has feelings. It depends what we mean by feelings, isn’t it?

This stuff is so absolutely fascinating. I wonder if we won’t have a good answer until we just build a brain ourselves and figure out what pieces we left out.

Bonus: once you’ve clicked the two links in the intro paragraph about what it is to be a human brain, and why scientists haven’t made any progress in building one, learn what happens when you short-circuit the brain with weird drugs.

Filed on under Educated Guesses

Jezebel’s Anna Merlan wrote a story last week that I’m frankly tired of reading. It’s cliché, it’s filled with tropes, and most of the characters are shallow and impossibly unsympathetic. Worst of all, it’s derivative! I’ve heard this story before. Someone needs to feed this lady a new prompt, because I… yeah. Okay.

Turns out that she wrote a nonfiction piece about a problem that seems to keep happening.

The tale begins when Merlan wrote a blog post calling 4chan a bunch of trolls. To prove her wrong, they started doing what they do to women on the internet. They harassed her. A lot. She writes about her harassment in a piece that’s easy to read but hard to stomach.

She takes time out to note that what happened to her probably isn’t the worst thing that 4chan trolls have done, by briefly highlighting some celebrated incidents of this kind of behavior. For instance, Merlan notes that they:

mocked the family of a kid who’d committed suicide, sometimes calling his parents pretending to be him and taunting them: “Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?”

Oh, so it’s going to be one of those kinds of stories. Well then.

Filed on under It's a Man's World