Finding freedom in strange places

A tweet by Timur Kuran on a ranking claiming greater critical thinking being taught in Saudi schools than in French, Italian, or Spanish had me thinking back to an earlier incident - where Sam Altman reflected on a trip to China:

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me. I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco. I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

Altman later tried to clarify his views but I think that both this incident and the later ranking of critical thinking skills point to something a little different12. It seems to me important to emphasize that different societies have different taboos. What one can speak about in one society one might not be able to speak about in others and vice-versa.

This post started with one tweet from Timur Kuran and it seems only fitting to end it with another:


  1. It seems also worth noting that some of Altman's treatment might also be due to differential treatment of foreigners - how societies can frequently seem to impose higher penalties on ingroup members who dissent than upon outgroup members who do. Interestingly, and perhaps semi-relatedly, the Saudi government seems to be relaxing restrictions on dress and gender segregation in the tourism sector↩︎

  2. Another interesting oddity is some of the recent research on the Chinese government's approach to censorship as you'll find expressed here. Basically it's an argument that "Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content." One of the things that might stimulate some sort of collective action, of course, being dissemination of details of a certain virus ↩︎

Still more coal power coming online...

I felt reminded of the following tweet again today which I seem to recall having originally popped into my feed alongside some stories on China resuming construction of a fleet of coal powerplants equal to the combined capacity of all those currently existing in the EU:

Guess what Japan's now also busy building - another 22 coal powerplants over the next 5 years. As I'd noted previously re: Japan, disappearing nuclear often seems to be replaced by fossil fuels. You'll see the same sort of thing with retired nuclear plants predominantly replaced by natural gas in the US

Anti-semitism and New York

Feeling reminded of the following quote from the New York Times article Is It Safe to Be Jewish in New York?:

If anti-Semitism bypasses consideration as a serious problem in New York, it is to some extent because it refuses to conform to an easy narrative with a single ideological enemy. During the past 22 months, not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an anti-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group, Mark Molinari, commanding officer of the police department’s Hate Crimes Task Force, told me.

Wonder if that latter claim is still the case after the most recent mass shooting targeting a Kosher deli in that vicinity. Was seeing various tweets like this in the parts of Twitter that I see which seem to hint at this being Trump-inspired. Who committed this latest attack though? Seems to have been someone affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites. If that name rings a bell here's where I suspect you last heard of them:

In January, a video of a confrontation involving students from Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington went viral, appearing to show the students yelling at a Native American activist.

The students later said they had been responding to a group of Hebrew Israelites, and further video footage showed the group had begun screaming invective at them and the activist.

After the conflagration, some of the Hebrew Israelites involved described it as a win, for elevating the fringe group to the national stage.

Wonder how much new coverage of this will highlight any of the complexity there, and the relative risk of being the victim of a hate crime. Going back to that first New York Times article:

Contrary to what are surely the prevailing assumptions, anti-Semitic incidents have constituted half of all hate crimes in New York this year, according to the Police Department. To put that figure in context, there have been four times as many crimes motivated by bias against Jews — 142 in all — as there have against blacks. Hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered hate crimes targeted at transgender people by a factor of 20.

The New York Times has previously noted that "many of the assailants arrested by the police have been young men of color", amongst them a Democratic volunteer "working on initiatives to combat hate crime, sexual assault and domestic violence" who was prominent enough to have been profiled in the New York Times.

The best conclusion to me is perhaps the following:

More random links

The truth about cats' and dogs' environmental impact
"Okin says he found that cats and dogs are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States. If Americans' 163 million Fidos and Felixes comprised a separate country, their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption"
Be Cautious with the Precautionary Principle: Evidence from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Accident
"We estimate that the increase in mortality from higher electricity prices outnumbers the mortality from the accident itself, suggesting the decision to cease nuclear production has contributed to more deaths than the accident itself."
Igbo Excellence on Twitter
"I noticed African Architecture isn’t really showcased compared to Asian, European, Middle Eastern and Indian. So here is a thread of African Architectural styles."

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