Saturday, June 30, 2012

For What Should the Word "Right" Be Used?

Several commentators, such as Joe and Jim, have been puzzled about my use of "a right," feeling I am perhaps being overly restrictive. Well, then, let me give some background to explain my thinking here.

Historically, a right was something of which, if denied, the party suffering the denial had means of redress against the denier. The King had the right to all the game in the New Forest, and should his right be denied, the denier could be prosecuted for poaching. Farmer Giles had the right of way through Farmer Maggot's fields to get to market, and should Farmer Maggot block that right of way, Farmer Giles could sue him. The Archbishop of York has the right to ten percent of the proceeds from all sales of ale in his see, and any brewer who fails to pay up may be fined.

The scope of these rights expanded in the Angloworld, in the 17th and 18th century, and things like the right to freedom-from-arrest while sitting in Parliament and the right to freedom of the press were asserted in different times and places. Although these things were often less specific than earlier rights they still follow the same template: X cannot be blocked from doing A or forced to do B by Y, and if Y does not heed this disability, X has means of redress against Y.

But soon, rights language was used to talk about things that do not fit that template at all. In doing so, I believe we have paid the price of our discourse has been muddied without any compensating gain.

Let us imagine that you are very concerned about children in the developing not getting enough education. You can express a vague, general concern about the matter: "It's a real shame these children do not get more education." That's not really an action plan or much of a commitment, but at least it is honest. But you might go further: you might lobby some particular government to make K-12 education free and mandatory, you might endow an educational foundation to build schools in Sri Lanka, or you might become a teacher in Botswana.

Alternately, if you really only have that originally mentioned vague, general concern, but want to appear as if you are a very serious person with great commitment to a cause, you can angrily declare "Every child in the world has the right to a free K-12 education!" You might even hold a sign up to that effect outside the UN for an hour one Saturday.

There is no particular entity that, by this declaration, anyone can sue should they not have a K-12 delivered to them for free. There is no particular entity that, by this declaration, is now legally obligated to provide this benefit. It is, in fact, no more efficacious in actually getting anyone an education than was the original, vague concern.

A declared "right to revolution" is, I suggest, a similarly empty right. Its real core of meaning is an assertion that "There are certain circumstances in which it is not wrong for citizens to rebel": it is a denial of the doctrine of passive obedience. But put into the language of rights, this sound principle has an element of nonsense mixed in: who, exactly, is one going to sue if one's right to revolution is denied?

What I suggest is that rights talk of this latter variety can be replaced, with a gain in clarity and no loss of moral oomph, with expressions that do not strain the original meaning of "a right" beyond the bursting point. If someone declares that "Every adult has the right to a job," they mean one of two things (or perhaps something else concrete resembling these two things that I haven't thought of), or they are merely posturing:

1) They may mean that every adult has the right to seek employment how and where they will, meaning concretely, perhaps, that a state law banning blacks from teaching can be struck down by the court, or that no town may restrict the entry of job seekers from outside the town.

2) They may mean that every adult who cannot find work elsewhere must be hired by the government, and can sue the government should it fail to offer a job.

If either 1) or 2) are meant, I think it is much better to say those things than to simply to declare "a right to a job." And I think that generally, if neither 1) nor 2) are meant, what we are witnessing is just a display of being a very serious, caring person for the sake of the display, with no real idea of how this purported concern is to be turned into action.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Who Be Readin' This?

Checking my stat page, it seems that last month, almost 10% of my traffic came from Russia.

How curious! I have no idea why that would be.

"What Is Macroeconomics?" Macroeconomic Theory I: Fall 2012

The goal of our first lecture will be to understand what sort of things we will study in a course called macroeconomics. How does this subject differ from microeconomics?

I will begin with some analogies. Remember that analogies are just analogies: the correspondences are not exact!

First analogy:

Microeconomics resembles the study of the weather at a particular moment and place, or in a limited locale: "Wow, it's pouring here right now!" (This analogy in particular is less than exact, but we are just trying to get a general grasp of things right now, to get us going.) Microeconomic questions are like asking, "How does the wind move in this canyon?" or "Why is the rainfall so much heavier on one side of this mountain than on the other?"

Macroeconomics resembles the study of regional or global weather patterns. Macroeconomic question are analogous to asking "How will El Niño affect weather in the United States this year?" or "How fast has the globe been warming?"

Second analogy:

Microeconomics resembles the study of the behavior of individual members of a species. It asks questions analogous to "How does the raccoon raise its young?" or "What are raccoon hunting patterns like?"

Macroeconomics resembles the study of large populations of raccoons, or of the entire species. It asks questions similar to "How has rabies impacted the raccoon population of the Eastern United States?" or "Is the raccoon evolving in response to the development of the automobile?" or "How have raccoons spread through Germany since their introduction in 1934?"

An important note: Notice that these studies often overlap, and we may need to move back and forth between the micro and the macro perspective to really grasp some issue. For instance, we can only tell if the raccoon species considered as a whole is changing its behavior in response to the presence of the automobile by noting the behavior of many, many individual raccoons and comparing such a study with previous, similar studies done earlier.

Beef Stroganjosh

The basic idea of this dish came to me when considering how well the "sweet" spices typically used in a korma (such as rogan josh) would go with the sour cream, beef, and egg noodle combination of the beef stroganoff I had made previously.

Grind 15 peppercorns, 10 coriander seeds, the insides of 5 cardamon pods, 2 cloves, 5 allspice berries, and a pinch of fenugreek seeds in a spice grinder.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a deep skillet.
Add the spices and stir for one minute.
Add a generous amount of garlic powder and onion powder. Sautee for a few seconds.
Add 2 pounds of cubed chuck meat. Stir until browned on all sides.
Add 8 ounces of beef stock. Bring to a boil and reduce heat.
Add 8 ounces sour cream. Simmer on a low temperature for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare one pound of egg noodles per package instructions.
While egg noodles are cooking, add one package of thawed frozen spinach or fresh spinach to the simmering beef.
Stir 2 teaspoons of corn starch into a couple of ounces of water until thoroughly blended. Add to simmering beef.
Pour beef mixture over noodles in pot. Heat on low for a couple of minutes to bind sauce to pasta and cook off excess liquid.

Now, There's an Actor Who Can Do Accents!

I had mentioned on Facebook that Liam Neeson, while a good actor (as far as I can judge actors, which ain't too far!), is bad at accents: when he plays an American, his Irish breaks out about once per line.

Contrast that with Idris Elba: I watched several seasons of him playing Stringer Bell in The Wire, and never had the least suspicion that he wasn't a Yank. Perhaps the fact that he grew up hearing a number of accents every day helped? (His father was from Sierra Leone, his mother from Ghana, and he grew up and was schooled in London.)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Most Conservative Rock Song Ever?

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
And I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again

Change it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fall that's all
But the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war -- Pete Townshend

How Can Google Possibly Be So Bad at Generating HTML Code?

Look at the previous post on this blog. I pasted in text from MS Word that was all in the exact same font. Blogger switched fonts twice in the first four paragraphs!

Why? The HTML code created is not only wrong, but so complex I really can't be bothered to sort the problem out. Google could create:

1) Simplistic code that didn't try to get everything correct from the original Word document, but was easy to correct; or
2) Complex code that nailed your original formatting, so that you'd have no need to correct it.

Instead, I get complex code that messes up my original formatting in significant ways.


Abstract: Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A Study in Error

“Descartes, Locke, and Newton, took away the world... Berkeley restored the world. Berkeley has brought us back to the world that only exist because it shines and sounds.” – W.B. Yeats
“The vulgar view of Berkeley, then as now, was of a befooled enthusiast who sought notoriety by his paradoxes.” (Turbayne 1955: 244)
Bishop Berkeley is popularly held to have endorsed scepticism about the existence of an external world. We have the famous incident of Samuel Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a rock, proving that the external world is real; similarly, over a century later, G.E. Moore held up his hand during a lecture, and declared it to be real, in order to refute idealism.
But is this common impression correct? This paper will trace the long history of discussion on this question, and demonstrate that there is widespread agreement amongst Berkeley scholars that the answer is “no”: Berkeley did not reject the existence of the external world. Indeed, some prominent Berkeley scholars have even denied that he was an idealist at all; instead, they contend, he was a common-sense realist, and at the same time an immaterialist.
Since the view of Berkeley as someone who rejected the existence of an external world relies heavily on his rejection of the concept of matter, as understood before him by Galileo, Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke, we must be very clear about to what Berkeley denied existence and to what he didn’t deny it. Sometimes it is said that Berkeley denied the existence of “the physical world.” This is true only if we take “the physical world” in a special sense. Berkeley did not deny the real, independent existence of what any ordinary person before the 16th or 17th century would have called “the physical world”: the world that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, the world that has rocks in it that hurt us when we kick them. What he denied existed was, instead, a specialized and recently developed philosophical concept: the “matter” recently posited by a number of thinkers preceding him, such as those mentioned above.
If that consensus amongst serious readers of Berkeley is correct, then it will also be interesting to investigate how the perception that he is one has persisted for so long. Therefore, this paper is, to some extent, an examination of how popular error can persist for centuries in the face of overwhelming expert opinion convicting the vulgar view of falsehood.
How can we explain the persistence of this error? It will be our contention that the explanation is the persistent temptation to interpret thinkers in an ahistorical manner, as if their ideas can be lifted out of the contemporary conversation in which they were engaged and evaluated as if they had appeared in the pages of Philosophy Today. This error was the target of critiques by both R.G. Collingwood and the so-called “Cambridge School” of historians, most notably Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock. The proposed work will serve as an illustration of the importance of their views.

Well, There Are Different Levels of Nice!

Just because he is a cannibal doesn't mean he's not nice:

'Eugene's mother said last month that her son was "a nice kid" who could have been subdued with a Taser rather than gunfire.'

Mam, your son had chewed off three-quarters of a living man's face. I think shooting is a bit too good for him, frankly. 

A Right to Rebellion?

Ryan Murphy declares: "I think it’s fair to first assert the right to rebellion"

What would such a right mean? Well, let us proceed by analogy: if I claim to have a right to free speech, I mean the government has no right to stop me from speaking my mind. If I have the right to freedom of religion, the government may not stop me from practicing any religion I choose.

These rights are accompanied by methods of redress: If my right to bear arms is violated, I may sue in court to have that right restored and to be compensated, if I sufferred as a result of the violation.

So a right to rebellion would imply that the government has no right to stop me from staging a rebellion, and, if it does so, I can sue it. Every crank in the country can rebel whenever he wants, and the government can't stop him. This would seem to imply a rotation of presidents every few minutes, as whoever has shown up most recently with a gun takes over, and then immediately loses his right to resist the next would-be president.

(Of course, we can only even talk about this right in a state-based legal framework: in anarchy, there cannot be a right to rebel because there is no entity against which to rebel.)

Stateless Societies

Bob Murphy recently posted on the "stateless" society of ancient Israel. ("Stateless" is in scare quotes not because I think Bob is wrong, but because what it means to have or not have a state is a contested issue. Many theorists of the state would say that Israel still didn't have a state even after Saul took the throne, in fact, that states didn't really exist until the 16th or 17th centuries A.D.)

Coincidentally, I have been thinking about such primitive, stateless societies a bit lately, specifically about their implications for anarchist theory. As I see it, there are a couple of important things about such societies that make them inapt examples for modern advocates of statelessness:

1) It is true that Israel under the judges, medieval Iceland, various American Indian tribes, and so on were not governed by a single, united authority. Instead, they were governed by customs and traditions that, in general, were far less libertarian than most central authorities have been. Think of getting stoned for eating shellfish, for instance: that may be a stateless society, but not a society that we moderns would consider particularly free!

2) As examples of "working anarchies" they are useless for the modern anarchist: yes, if we were governed as minutely by customs as had been the people of those examples, then their examples show us we could do without a sovereign. But, of course, we aren't, and there is no prospect we will be -- and would we even want to be? Rothbard recognized this to some extent, I think, and was trying to create such a set of new customs to rule over Rothbardia. But the effort never had a shot at success, and the resulting "society" repeatedly splintered into sub-factions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Isn't This a Straightforward Prisoner's Dilemma?

How often in movie's have you seen two enemies pointing pistols at each other from about ten feet apart, having a stand-off? Isn't the rational action here simply to shoot immediately? (Of course, there are sometimes complications: one guy is a cop, say, and he's not supposed to be shooting first, or the "enemy" is his brother, and he loves the dude, but can't let him leave with the diamonds. But let's just consider the cases without those complications, of which I have seen plenty.)

You can hardly expect to play Tit for Tat here, right? If your opponent has pulled the trigger from ten feet away, you are dead, correct? It would seem to me that there is no "threat" that if you shoot, I will too. But perhaps a reader more familiar with firearms than am I will set me straight here. Joe? Bob, do you and Woods ever have standoffs where you each threaten the other with your machine-gun-like wits? How do those resolve?

Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A History of Misinterpretation

An academic press in the UK has asked me to draw up a proposal for turning my paper "Was Berkeley a Subjective Idealist?" into a monograph. Now, ever since I was a kid and read that Sherlock Holmes had written a monograph entitled Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos, I have wanted to write a monograph. And since blogging is the best way to get me writing, I will try out my table of contents here.

Was Berkeley a Skeptic About the External World? A History of Misinterpretation

Chapter I: Writing the History of Thought: Lessons from Collingwood and Cambridge
Chapter II: Berkeley's Setting: Galileo, Descartes, and Locke
Chapter III: Berkeley in Context
Chapter IV: Berkeley out of Context
Chapter V: Getting Berkeley Right

UPDATE: I am recasting the basic tension here to make clearer what Berkeley was asserting and what he was denying. Some people identify "subjective idealism" with subjectivism or solipsism, while others don't. Therefore, the change in terminology.

Hey, Your Horse Lost Anyway!

Let's say you pay me $100 to go place a $1000 bet for you on your favorite horse. Instead of placing the bet, I have a night of expensive lap dances at the Hustler Club.

When you discover this, you are very angry, accusing me of stealing our money. I respond, "Hey, your horse lost anyway!"

Isn't it pretty clear that this is no defense at all?

Well, not to Will Wilkinson, who defends the Supreme Court against the charges of helping in a coup in Bush vs. Gore by noting that, "Mr Fallows seems to forget that George W. Bush actually won the 2000 presidential election," citing the fact that the recount Gore wanted actually would have confirmed Bush's victory in Florida.

Look, I don't frankly know if the Court's decision in that case was sound or not: I simply know far too little constitutional law to even have an opinion one way or the other. But I do know this: if the decision was bad, it provides no defense for the Court to point out that Bush would have won anyway. If I shoot someone dead who, as it happens, was, unbeknownst to me, dying of a heart attack at that very moment, I am just as morally blameworthy as if he had had ninety years to live, even though my action had no important practical consequences.


PS Huff is upset that our constitution is no longer being employed according to its "original understanding." As noble as his motives are, there never was one single "original understanding," and the idea of "one constitution to rule them all, one constitution to bind them" was always an impossible dream:

"Nor can there be a single ultimate rule of recognition, an unconditional and unquestionable norm from which all others derive their authority: a 'constitution' not subject to interpretation and immune from inquiry." -- Michael Oakeshott, On Human Conduct, p. 151

Every Creature Is Equally Highly Evolved

Some people are fond of calling humans a "highly evolved ape." But in terms of materialist evolution, this makes no sense:

"Biological evolution has no privileged line of descent and no designated end. Evolution has reached many millions of interim ends (the number of surviving species at the time of observation), and there is no reason other vanity -- human vanity as it happens, since we are doing the talking -- to designate any one as more privileged or climactic than any other." -- Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale, p. 4

In purely materialist terms, we have on earth today some tens of millions of species that are all equally evolved, since every single one of them has been evolving for four billion years.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A New Crime

According to a public service announcement I heard on the radio today, fidgeting and looking nervously around while on a train are now (potential?) crimes that must be reported to the authorities.

They hate us for our freedom!

Bikes in NYC

Back in Brooklyn I turn the corner to be met head on by a bicyclist about to run a red light going the wrong way on a one-way street. I'm stressed from 45 minutes of fighting city traffic, and I lean on the horn. She is shocked! She has no idea what I am upset with her about!

Bicyclists in New York simply do not think the traffic laws have anything to do with them.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mosquitos in the Face of Citronella

I like to sit on my porch, looking out at the woods, and read and write. On summer evenings, this entails applying a lot of citronella spray. The behavior of mosquitos in the face of these circumstances is fascinating. They float all around me, as though they have detected something yummy, but when they start to zoom closer, they suddenly think, "Oh gross!" and back up again.

I Am Learning to Levitate!

"It's true. I am well on my way. I can show you."

(You come to my house.)

"OK, Gene, let's see."

"There you go!"

"But you didn't rise at all: what are you talking about?"

"Well, I have to start somewhere! The first step is "zero levitation": where else did you expect me to start? But now that I've made the first step, we can see how the process will proceed."

"That's ridiculous! No levitation is not the 'first step' on the way to levitating: it's not a step at all."

"No, my man, it's you who are being ridiculous. I just learned from a famous philosopher that building a machine 'without the least smidgen of understanding' is an important first step in showing how understanding arose. You see, even though that step didn't get anywhere at all towards artificially creating understanding, it was still a very important step! So I admit, my first step to learning to levitate hasn't actually gotten me anywhere at all, but, you see, it is still a vital step. Because, you know, emergence, and, um, evolution."


I Didn't Make Mass This Morning

When I turned on my phone after waking up, the screen read "No Service." I figured, if God is sending me messages via my phone, I'd better obey, so I worked in the garden.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Does My Thermostat Know That It Is Cold? (More Dennett)

Daniel Dennett and I are kicking back, watching game seven of the Heat-Thunder series (I am in denial) and I say to him, "My thermostat must be feeling chilly."

"What are you talking about?" he asks.

"Well, it just turned the furnace on: it does that whenever it feels chilly."

"That's ridiculous! It's a totally unfeeling machine. Its turning the furnace on is just a mechanical response to the thermometer moving."

"OK, then, how do you explain how humans feel hot and cold?"

"Ah," he responds, "that is trivial: all you have to do is wire together a whole bunch of mechanisms like your thermostat into a very complex network."

Now, there is a pretty obvious logical difficulty here: If the thermostat has zero feeling, how is putting a whole bunch of them together result in a non-zero amount of feeling? As I recall, even trillions of zeroes added together still amount to zero.

Now, there is at least one way to form a coherent theory of a "built-up" mind, and that is panpsychism, represented by, amongst others, Alfred North Whitehead. A panpsychist might say, "Gene's thermostat does feel chilly, just in a very primitive fashion. And the human mind does arise from the matter in the brain, and it can do so because that matter is already, in a very low-level way, capable of thought.

But Dennett has very explicitly closed off that route for himself: "Turing realized that this was just not necessary: you could take the tasks they performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions."

So Dennett could not be clearer: A basic circuit for saying, adding two numbers, does not have even a "tiny smidgen" of understanding. But somehow, actual human understanding is supposed to arise from wiring together a vast number of such circuits, or something analogous to them. Eventually, all of those zeroes are bound to amount to something!

So why, despite this difficulty, is this strategy pursued? The answer, I think, is clear: if materialism is true, then somehow mind must arise from a whole bunch of non-mental components.

Well, I think that is an excellent reason to suspect that materialism is false. Now, we might resist that conclusion if we had other good reasons to think materialism is true. But there are no other such good reasons. And there a very excellent cases for materialism being clearly false: I recommend Michael Oakeshott's Experience and Its Modes for one, quite readable, instance of the case against materialism.

Humans Beings Can Be Constructed from Sticks, Straw, and Old Clothing!

You don't believe me? Well, I put up a scarecrow in my field, and some birds thought it was a person. We could even say it is "sorta" a person, couldn't we? At the very least, we are well on our way to constructing a person from sticks, straw, and old clothing, aren't we? And we certainly have shown that it is feasible, even if we can't quite do it yet, right?

What is the point of an argument so obviously silly? I'm not sure, but here is what is essentially the same argument, presented by a "philosopher"!

Dennett notes, quite correctly, that "Turing realized that [understanding] was just not necessary: you could take the tasks [human "computers"] performed and squeeze out the last tiny smidgens of understanding, leaving nothing but brute, mechanical actions. In order to be a perfect and beautiful computing machine, it is not requisite to know what arithmetic is."

But Dennett goes on to claim that these machines, without even a tiny smidgen of understanding, are evidence for... "how a mind could... be composed of material mechanisms"

So, constructing a machine that, admittedly, does not have a mind at all, shows us how minds can be constructed mechanically?! Sure, just like my scarecrow lays out the "basics" of how to construct people from things laying around in the yard.

Ed Feser: Plants Have No Qualia

Ed responds to a blog post of mine here.

In a seemingly common move by modern Aristotelians, he first plays the "but he doesn't really understand what we are saying" card. Well, no, Ed, I understood perfectly well that the issue was about qualia, about whether there is something it is like to be a plant.

That being cleared up, let's get down to the empirical issues that we might use to judge whether there is something it is like to be a plant. Here, I believe the key issue is that much of the activity of plants does not look like activity to us, so that only careful scientific investigation reveals how active they actually are. For instance, Ed says:

"Hence, imagine that dry grass could feel the oppressive heat of the sun or experience thirst and the craving for water. What would be the point? It would not be able to do anything about its circumstances and would thus, unlike an animal, suffer without being able even in principle to remedy the circumstances leading to that suffering."

This is simply false. Plants can and do do things about circumstances like these. For instance, the rhododendrons in my yard, in extreme heat, curl up their leaves, lessening water loss. Plants that undergo periodic dry spells develop deeper root systems than those that do not.

Ed contrasts plants with animals as follows:

"An animal is aware of various aspects of its environment for the sake of the motions toward or away from those aspects that that awareness makes possible, and feels drawn toward or repelled by those aspects as a consequence. Thus the absence of locomotive and appetitive powers in plants is evidence that awareness is absent as well, for awareness would be pointless in that case."

But, again, it is simply empirically false that plants do not move towards or away from aspects of their environments. They merely do so at a much slower rate than do animals, so it is not readily apparent that they are doing so. But it has been found that plants "recognize" others of their own species, actively work to drive off plants of other species, and respond to insect attacks with counter-attacks of their own.

The problem is not that I do not understand the Aristotelian argument for the lack of sentience in plants. The problem is that, by Aristotelian criteria, that judgment ought to be revised in the light of a large amount of recent research.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Andrew Sullivan Is Not Thinking This Through


Sister Gramick, for those unaware of her, is a nun who: "from the beginning, in presenting the Church's teaching on homosexuality, [has]... continually called central elements of that teaching into question.

Sullivan says the Vatican is "trying to silence her."

OK, Andrew, I'm going to speak to you in the only kind of terms you people seem to understand! And by "you people" I mean Oakeshottians, and those kind of terms would be ideal types.

You see, the thing is this: the Catholic Church is not a civil association. A civil association ought not to be compelling its members to refrain from expressing certain opinions. But the Catholic Church is an enterprise association: its members are united not merely in subscription to a body of law, but in pursuit of a substantive purpose. In the case of the Catholic Church, that purpose is intimately tied to certain ethical teachings.

Sister Gramick obviously disagrees with some of those teachings, some which the Church hierarchy feels are very important. They are telling her to stop her public disagreement, or to leave. And an enterprise association is entitled to do that, because by joining it, voluntarily, by the way, you implicitly agreed to help it achieve its stated aims. And if you are acting to thwart those aims (as those in charge see them, mind you!), you either stop or get out. If you work for Apple, you can't write for PC Magazine saying how Macs suck and telling everyone to buy Windows. If you work for the NAACP, you can't publish an op-ed entitled "Bring Back the Grand Days of Jim Crow!" And that is entirely sensible.

I myself disagree with the Catholic Church on some important points. So you know what I did? I became an Episcopalian -- and now my church has no positions of any substance with which to disagree!

Because we had a little thing called the Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Church no longer mixes features of a civil association with those of an enterprise association, it is no longer capable of "silencing" anybody. Sister Gramick can become a Unitarian, or a Buddhist! She can go find a religion she actually believes in. And you could then stop saying silly things about the Vatican.

Ah, Local Produce!

Ryan Murphy should get a kick out this one: I just past a "local" produce stand in Matamoras selling bananas and oranges. Come to Pennsylvania, and visit the marvelous banana plantations and orange groves of the Pocono Mountains!


"The authority of these laws derives from the recognition of the procedure in which they are made or announced, and their content (their 'justice') reflects the character of the culture from which they spring. They are designed to express, in a simplified manner, those items of a cultural relationship which, if not generally and consistently observed, threaten its dissolution. Governing is having the care and custody of this rule-ordered manner of association, and the engagement of politics is considering these terms of civil order in respect of their adequacy to perform their function in the circumstances of ever more extensive and complicated human discoveries and adventures." -- Michael Oakeshott, The Vocabulary of a Modern European State, p. 296

Movie Issues

1) People in movies generally have the worst table manners: they hold their silverware in odd, random fashions, stuff their mouths with food, and then talk so that you can hear it mushing around inside their mouths. But they are also forever holding wine glasses by only the stem, i.e., they aren't cradling the cup at all, just grasping the stem with their fingers. Now I guess some people consider this correct etiquette, but it is something I rarely see "real" people do. So why is it movie characters ignore common table manners, but hold wine glasses in this highly refined manner?

2) Movie tech talk: I just watched Event Horizon -- a pretty bad movie, by the way -- and when the scientist / engineer tries to explain his new engine to a bunch of astronauts, in fairly simple, non-mathematical terms, they all become dumbfounded and ask him to speak English. These people are supposed to be technical experts of various types. How, for instance, did the engineer get his job if a simple explanation like the one the scientist offered does not even sound like English to him?

The worst ever of this type of incident has to be this -- watch at about 40 seconds in, for about 15 seconds or so:

How do you like that: Jeff Goldblum gives a junior-in-high-school-level explanation of chaos theory, and Laura Dern, playing a PhD scientist, makes a cute little, "but I'm only a freshman and that went right over my head" gesture!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What De Hell Is Dat, Mon?

I recall Ali G encountering one of those weird Scottish cows and asking the farmer the titular question of this post. But now I ask you the same about:

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I find living in the woods to be an amazing thing, particularly when it comes to insects: almost every night throughout the summer, I encounter some creature I have never before laid eyes on.

Who's Been Walking on My Porch?

I'm having trouble identifying these tracks:

Does anyone recognize them? (The boards are 2-by-8s, and the prints are about 10 inches apart.)

And That's Why We Don't Hang on to People in the Water!

I was swimming in "my" lake about an hour ago. Given the heat, there were a fair number of other people in the lake, at least for a week day in June. Near me was a father surrounded by three kids. As I slowly inched my way deeper into the frigid water, he began yelling at them:

"Don't hang on to people in the water! That's how people drown!"

I was sorely puzzled. Having been a lifeguard for five or six years, I know that it is true that drowning people can easily drown others by desperately clinging to them. But these were just kids horsing around. That's how people drown? If it's a big problem, I had never heard about it -- and like I said, I used to be a pro.

As those thoughts were running through my head, the father yelled again, this time in panic, and shot past me. I spun around. Not ten feet from where he had been delivering his lecture to these three older children, his younger daughter (whom no one had been holding on to) was, in fact, drowning. The dad and a lifeguard reached her at the same moment and pulled her head up out of the water. She was fine, if quite scared.

The man turned to his other kids and said, "See! That's why you don't hold on to people in the water!"

Hmm. The lesson I would have taken from the incident was, "See! That's why you don't stop paying attention to your kid who can't swim to give fallacious lectures about mythical problems to the ones who can!" But maybe that's just me.

Mediocre Song, Lousy Cause

When I wrote about "The Slavers," what was bugging me was the "cheap thrill" of feeling morally superior by being anti-Confederate. How about condemning a war fought, at least in part, for slavery when it's actually unpopular to do so? For instance, what people were roused to war by their enemy "plying up the Rivers... using every Art to seduce the Negroes [to throw off their bonds]"? What people were moved to fight because their enemy had raised an army that wore the words "Liberty to Slaves" on their chests?

"In the famous case of Somerset vs. Stuart (1772), British jurist Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery could not be sanctioned by the common law. It was... incompatible with the 'natural rights of mankind" and the "mild and humane precepts of Christianity." Once a slave stood on British soil, the very air he breathed gave him legal protection and made him free. A writer in the New-York Journal assumed this would produce 'greater ferment' than had the Stamp Act..." -- Burstein and Isenberg, Madison and Jefferson, p. 24

The damned oppresive English were trying to interfere with our right to own slaves! And not only that:

"Pendleton's eagerness to declare Virginia independent in May 1776, and to instruct its delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for national independence, was related to the landed gentry's urge for western land... These tensions existed because the Proclamation of 1763, issued by the British Parliament, expressly prohibited western migration." -- Madison and Jefferson, p. 28

So those tyrannical Brits were trying to stop us from robbing and killing the Injuns as well!

OK, sure, there were greedy "slavers" who were anxious to steal yet more land from the Indians. But at least we had noble leaders like Jefferson around, who chastised them as follows:

"Nothing will reduce the [Indian] wretches so soon as pushing war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi." -- Madison and Jefferson, p. 29

Ooh, that wasn't chastisement at all, was it? That's downright enthusiasm for genocide and ethnic cleansing on the scale of half a continent!

So, Professor DeLong, are you with me here? "The Star Spangled Banner": Mediocre song, lousy cause.


Did you ever realize that the "cinder" part of her name was meant to invoke cinders? Well, I never did, until I saw her name in Italian: Cenerentola. Which is basically "Ash-tola."

Next I'm going to discover that the Ashmolean was at first a museum devoted to ashes.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hey Language Book Producers

I realize you can't afford to stick an entire dictionary for the language you are trying to teach in the back of your book of, say, short stories in Urdu. But how about this: if you're going to include a dictionary at all, perhaps you could see that it has all the words in your book? Just use software to extract a list of unique words from the stories, and, bing-batta-bing, you've got your dictionary. And if that is still too long for your budget? Then strip out the most *common* words, and leave in the rarer ones. Anyone trying to read stories in a foreign language already knows the words for 'man,' 'woman,' 'dog,' 'food,' and 'night.' It's when the author mentions the equivalents of 'scree' or 'spate' that we're likely to be stumped.

So Don't Try Telling Them You Only Put Four Beers in the Cooler!

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Sensible Advocate of a Sensible "Paleo" Approach to Dieting

Reader August kindly sent me this link. This guy (Mat LaLonde) does not strike me as cranky at all. Just to be clear: I think NeoDarwinian theory is a pretty good description of how life has evolved, and I think that there are undoubtedly implications for our diet springing from that fact. What bothers me about some of the paleo advocates (e.g. DeCoster) is they seem to ignore plain facts about evolution, such as the rapid adaptation to dairy on the part of herding peoples.

But certainly, we should look to our pasts for clues as to what might be good for us. My ancestry being Northern European, I am not bothered by wheat or dairy at all. My wife's ancestry being Southeast Asian, she can't tolerate lactose or gluten. That all makes perfect sense to me. And this seems to be what Mat LaLonde -- hey, Mat, who stole that 't' from your first name? -- advocates: pay attention to what you can and can't digest properly. And our evolutionary past certainly can give us hints as to what to expect in this regard.

If Local Agriculture Is Constrained to Work Like Global Agriculture...

then it won't work very well! Steve Sexton estimates the inefficiency of local agriculture by modeling a "pseudo-locavore" economy "in which each state that presently produces a crop commercially must grow a share proportional to its population relative to all producers of the crop."

"My conservative estimates are that under the pseudo-locavore system, corn acreage increases 27 percent or 22 million acres, and soybean acres increase 18 percent or 14 million acres. Fertilizer use would increase at least 35 percent for corn, and 54 percent for soybeans, while fuel use would climb 23 percent and 34 percent, for corn and soybeans, respectively. Chemical demand would grow 23 percent and 20 percent for the two crops, respectively."

So, if you turn to local agriculture but resolutely ignore local growing conditions and demand that everyone still eat just what they do today, it will be wasteful.

Steve, just exactly who is recommending this alternate economy you have modeled?

Unsustainable, That's What You Are

A Professional Writer Wrote This Sentence

Here: "That would be the fire James showed in chasing rebounds, he had 14 of them, including five offensive, and his defense on Durant in the fourth quarter."

My New Goal

To grow the largest bonsai tree ever:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Authority and Rebellion: Luther on Passive Obedience

Faced with the threat of Lutheranism being wiped out, Luther at first stuck to his guns on passive obedience:

'"It is in no way proper for anyone who wants to be a Christian to stand up against the authority of his government, regardless of whether that government acts rightly or wrongly," for even if "his Imperial Majesty acts unjustlyand operates contrary to his duty and oath, this does not nullify the authority of Imperial government, nor does it nullify the necessity of obedience."' Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 196-197

However, by 1530, Luther, faced with immense pressure to resist the Emperor from fellow Lutherans, and presented with two theories that justified active resistance, capitulated.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Evolution and Design III: I Make a Concession

I think Danny Shahar and I have actually gotten somewhere, which may be a first for a Facebook discussion. I see I should make a concession, and perhaps Kevin Vallier should modify his original hypothesis: If one's design argument for God was a god-of-the-gaps type of argument, then Darwinism significantly weakens that argument. So, here is the Shane Battier analogy: I say, "Battier must be some kind of wizard, who willed that ball into the hoop, because that shot defied the laws of physics!" If you then show me that, no, the shot obeyed those laws in all respects, my case is significantly weakened, if not wiped out. So if someone is forwarding a design argument that runs, "These creatures we see around us are such that only miracles could have created them," then, yes, that design argument is wrecked by Darwinism. I had just never thought of the argument from design in that way myself, although I now see that there surely are people who do. (But any major theistic philosopher? Not that I know of.)

St. Paul and I Agree...

Taxation is not theft: "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves." -- Romans 13

The key idea implicit here, and the one that turned me on the subject of whether or not taxation is theft, is that "every soul" owes obedience to the "governing authorities." Now, if that is a debt I truly owe, then, when those authorities levy the taxes they need to do the job of governing, I owe them those taxes, and attempts to collect them certainly do not constitute acts of theft. And obviously it doesn't matter at all, from this point of view, whether or not I "signed" any sort of "social contract." (In fact, the history of political thought since the Reformation can be read as an attempt to find a secular replacement for the Christian idea of the source of political authority, the social contract being one such effort.)

Now, I can believe that there are sincere Christians out there who think I have somehow misinterpreted Paul, but I think anyone following my reasoning here can at least concede, "Well, Gene, I certainly can see how you could conclude taxes aren't theft, even though I think you have read Paul incorrectly."

A General Theory of the Social Cycle

Food fads come in cycles as well: 'Even The Wall Street Journal applied its business lingo to the trend's end in 2010, with writer Katy McLaughlin declaring that "we are in the midst of a bacon bubble," and that it was bursting.'

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

UPDATE: How can Google generate such God-awful HTML code? (You know what I mean if you saw how the first version of this post was formatted.) When I pasted in a single quote from The Atlantic, Blogger put in literally about a dozen "span" tags, tags that wound up making the text look ridiculous. All of that work to achieve a horrific result!

The Keynesians Have Been Largely Correct...

About the recent crisis. Note well: if one has the correct understanding of, say, Austrian Business Cycle theory, that the Keynesians were correct about these large questions does not "refute" Austrian theory. The Austrian theory is an ideal type (as is the Keynesian theory) that more or less applies to any real world situation. How much it applies in any particular situation must be determined empirically.

In the recent downturn, the Austrian story of capital misallocation certainly played a part -- we clearly had a engorged housing sector! But the collapse of aggregate demand played a larger part. In fact, I am starting to suspect that the best cycle theory is often a combination of the two stories, with the exposure of a badly distorted capital structure leading to a collapse in aggregate demand when it causes a crisis of confidence. And then the best solution is to try to maintain NGDP, a la Scott Sumner, while allowing the misallocations to settle out.

Evolution and Design II

On Facebook, Danny Shahar continues to query me about my contention that acceptance of Darwinian evolution ought to have no impact, positive or negative, on an argument from design for the existence of God. I have devised this second example to try to explain things to the lad.

I make a trip to Arizona. When I get there, Danny asks me, "Gene what are you doing here?" I say, "Well, it was my plan [design] to spend a month in the desert as a cure for my respiratory problems." A eliminative materialist in his department overhears this and says, "Plan? Bah! Every single instant of Callahan's trip can be perfectly well explained by the laws of physics."

Would you agree that that is not a defeater for my claim that I planned to go to Arizona? My plan is not some miracle inserted at the start that then set everything else going: my plan was operative at every single turn I made, etc. As were the laws of physics. Looking at this in terms of my plan is not an explanation that competes with the laws of physics for explaining my trip, nor does it enter in at the point of some "incompleteness" in the physical explanation. Rather, it is the exact same events, seen from a different perspective.

Words You Can't Remember?

Do you have any words the definition of which just won't stick in your head? 'Bathos' is like that for me. I must have looked that sucker up thirty times now, and just had to do so again this morning.

Plants Have Sensations

Contrary to Aristotle, plants are active and communicate to each other, with sounds among other methods. This certainly does not invalidate all of Aristotle's metaphysics. But it certainly does mean neo-Aristotelians ought to drop the idea that plants lack sensations. Whether anything at all has a "vegetative soul" is an interesting question -- I doubt it -- but if anything does, it ain't plants. And, of course, Aristotle would have thought of mushrooms as a sort of plant, and would have had no idea that the mushroom is only the visible tip of a much vaster organism1, and one that lives in a totally different way to plants. Having made the mistake of tying Aristotelian metaphysics to Aristotelian natural science once before (at the time of the Scientific Revolution), do neo-Aristotelians really want to do that twice?

1 -The largest known fungal organism in the world stretches out over 2200 acres, is 2400 years old, and weighs perhaps 600 tons.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Evolution and Design

Kevin Vallier generated a hailstorm of comments by posting the following on Facebook: "Hypothesis: Darwinism does not significantly alter the force of the design argument for God's existence. If it was weak before Darwin, it was weak after Darwin. If it was strong before Darwin, it was strong after Darwin."

Kevin is surely correct here. One way to see this is to reverse the situation: If we tomorrow were to see animals simply popping into existence out of nowhere, would (and should) this convince any atheists that God exists? No: it would simply be held that somehow nature is such that animals pop into existence out of nowhere, and a "naturalistic" theory of how they do so would be developed.

Or think of this: If you believe Rembrandt painted a particular picture hanging in your hallway, would this belief be weakened if someone told you, "No, the reason that paint clings to that canvas can easily be explained by the chemical properties of the canvas"? Showing that something came about through a physio-chemical process has no bearing on the question of whether or not it was designed. It might have implications about who the designer could be: if it appeared beyond the physical capacities of the posited designer to manipulate the process in question, then we could conclude that, whether or not the item under examination was designed, that was not the designer! For example, if someone says to you, "All life on earth was designed by slugs," it's fair to point out that this doesn't seem to be the sort of thing of which slugs are capable. But of course, faced with someone who believes "An all-powerful being used the process of evolution to generate the creatures he wished to have populate his world," to respond "Nah, that would be beyond such a being's capabilities."

UPDATE: I thought of a nice example walking back from my daughter's play tonight. Last night against the Thunder, Miami's Shane Battier banked in a three-point shot. I can picture a Heat and a Thunder fan sitting together watching the game. The Thunder fan screams, "What a lucky shot!" The Heat fan claims, "No, he meant to bank that." So the Heat fan is claiming design, and the Thunder fan chance. The Thunder fan might present various arguments backing his view, such as "Battier never banks his three-point shots," or "Nobody tries to bank in a shot from there." But it is pretty clearly useless to his cause to say "There was no design involved: that shot followed the laws of physics the whole way!"

Oh, That's What Keynesian Means?! explains it for us: "Not so long ago, Sweden could claim world leadership in unmitigated Keynesian economics, with a 90 percent marginal tax rate and a welfare state second to none."

And here I thought Keynesianism had to do with boosting aggregate demand during a downturn!

Does This Make Any Sense to Anybody?

The NYU Development Research Institute has just "refuted" the idea that America is in decline by noting that, in the past, America was not in decline!

So, if my doctor tells me, "You have just contracted a deadly disease," I can refute him by pointing to my previous 53 years of health?! (And by the way, I am not contending that America is in decline. I'm just noting that the graph shown is a ridiculous refutation of the idea that it is.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

If You've Had a Lot of Beer...

Then beer might have a lot of 'e's.

A Question for Anti-FRBers

If you think fractional reserve banking should be illegal, do you think the same thing about any mismatch between your short and long loan maturities? That very thing, after all, was a big problem in the recent financial meltdown. If you think FRB should be illegal, it seems you ought to be for financial regulation that requires an exact match between the maturity of what you have borrowed and the maturity of what you have lent.

If you are not for that, why not?

Murphy Kicks a Rock

Bob Murphy thinks it is a terrible time for the United States government to borrow more. At one point in this essay, Bob goes totally off the rails:

"This is because government debt involves present citizens living at the expense of future taxpayers..."

Now, in the endless Internet debate on whether debt government debt "is" a burden on future generations, again and again, all I have ever seen the proponents of "yes" show with their models is that, used in a certain way, government debt can be a burden on future generations. No one has ever shown that it necessarily is such a burden, which seems to be the claim Bob is making. With reference to Murphy's models in particular, Daniel Kuehn and I repeatedly duplicated any inter-generational transfer he modeled in a way that didn't use debt at all. As Noahopinion put it, "So I think this tells us something important about debt in the real world. What matters is not debt, it's intertemporal choice. The important question is not how much debt we rack up, but whether we want to move consumption from the future into the present or from the present into the future."

Exactly. In particular, in the current situation, we could easily do an inter-generational transfer from ourselves to future generations simply by borrowing now, while costs are low, and spending the money on infrastructure projects that we know will need to be done over the next decade or two anyway.  We would cut our current consumption today to get these projects done now, and future generations could consume more than otherwise because they won't have to repair, let us say, the George Washington Bridge in "their" time.

Murphy might protest, "But come on, Gene, you know if the government borrows more, it's just going to fritter away the money on current consumption!"

Maybe so. But that illustrates Noahopinion's point, doesn't it: "What matters is not debt, it's intertemporal choice."

A Second Culture

It's hard: "If these soldiers had been immersed in two years of intensive language training and an additional four years of education in the people, tribes, history and cultures of Afghanistan, at the end of those six years, they would still have only a fraction of the local knowledge of an illiterate subsistence farmer native to the region."

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

No Longer Worth My Time

I had planned on picking up one or two of these soon, but not if they're going to pull stunts like this!

Verbs Like Peanut Saturday

I'm trying to use Siri to take notes as I drive, something I have to do, since I seem to get an idea for something to write about every five minutes as I drive, every one of which disappears as soon as I stop the car. The guy on my current Italian CD say "Essere is used to form the passato prossimo with intransitive verbs of motion, with reflexive verbs, and with verbs like piacere."

The last struck me as amusingly unhelpful: verbs like piacere in that they relating to being pleasing, in that they start with 'p,' in that they have four syllables...?

I spotted a chance to make fun of someone: Time for a note. The next several minutes in the car went like this:

GENE: Siri, send a message to Gene Callahan.
SIRI: [Eerie silence.]
GENE: Siri, send a message to Gene Callahan.
SIRI: [Eerie silence.]
GENE: Siri, send a damned message to Gene Callahan.
SIRI: I'm sorry, there seems to be a problem. Try again in a mile. [She can't understand the one single command I've ever given her, but she is aware I'm traveling.]
GENE: Siri, send a message to Gene Callahan.
SIRI: What should the message say?
GENE: Verbs like piacere.
SIRI: And who would you like me to send that to?
GENE: To F*(king Gene Callahan.
SIRI: No entry for F*(king Gene Callahan.
GENE: To Gene Callahan.
SIRI: And what would you like the message to say?
GENE: Verbs like piacere.
SIRI: OK, sending.

When I next pulled over, I had received as a text message the title of this post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Slavers

When Brad DeLong posted a video of The Band playing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" on his blog, one commentator wrote that he hated seeing rockers defend "the slavers."

It was a stupid remark in that the song is about loss, not slavery, but it also struck me how trite his opinion was. Wow, you're against slavery, are you? That's a courageous moral stance you've adopted there!

But what would his stance have been had he been an upper-class white man in the American South in 1850? Given that you can read off every opinion this guy has from that one comment -- Abortion? A woman's right to choose! Someone is opposed to same-sex marriage? Homophobic! And so on. -- you can bet his views would have been absolutely conventional for the time, i.e., he would have been firmly for it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Just Give Me That Old Time Conspiracy

Ryan Murphy is skeptical about the paleo diet. And with good reason: there is little evidence supporting it in the peer-reviewed literature, and its most cogent defender is a journalist.

One response from the paleo advocates is: It's a conspiracy! All of the peer-reviewed journals have been bought off by big agriculture (although it is a mystery why in the world big agriculture wants us to eat less meat). Bob Higgs once conveyed to me a very nice way to think about this sort of contention. (I quote him here from memory, so I will not have gotten his argument precisely!)

"People ask me," he said, "if I believe that conspiracies exist. 'Of course I do,' I tell them. 'Just go down and eat breakfast in a cafe near K Street in Washington any morning, and there will be a conspiracy being hatched at almost every table around you."

"But the people asking the question usually believe in one big conspiracy [the Bilderburgs, the Illuminati, agribusiness, etc.]. I tell them that it is precisely all of the small conspiracies I can see every day are the very reason I believe one big conspiracy controlling everything is pretty unlikely: all of these small conspiracies work at cross-purposes."

In the food industry, I am quite sure there are conspiracies on the part of the soybean growers to get us to eat more soy. And the beef industry wants to get us to eat more beef. (Hey, how do you paleo folks know that Taubes isn't part of this conspiracy?) Ditto for the dairy industry. Green Giant doubtlessly has lobbyists working to put vegetables on our plates, and Oscar Meyer and Hormel probably at some point launched a processed meat conspiracy.

The net effects of all of these conspiracies are largely going to be:
1) Some bias against the small, independent food producer, who can't afford his own conspiracy; and
2) Not much more, since they will all tend to balance out, otherwise.

But, if you still suspect that there is one, master conspiracy, here's where I'd direct my attention: the xanthum gum manufacturers. How it get in everything otherwise?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I Have Never Been So Sad...

At the end of any sporting event in my life. When Doc Rivers pulled the starters tonight with 40 seconds left, there were tears running down his face. The big three had been brought together by the market, but they and Rondo had become true teammates. They should have had more than one championship, if Perkins hadn't gone down against LA in 2010, and if management hadn't idiotically traded him in 2011. (Yeah, going with Shaquille O'Neal, that was a great strategy.)

But now they are done: it was clear in the fourth quarters of the last two games that the big three are now too old to be the main cogs of a championship team. They each might have a couple of good years left as role players somewhere, but Boston needs to rebuild around Rondo to have a chance at another championship in a couple of years. But the sport is going to miss this combination, and their example of true comradery.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Well, Given That They Are Cashews...

I bought a plastic tub of cashews from the grocery store today. On the lid, it says "A cashew lovers delight."

Well, yeah, they are cashews, so they would be exactly what delights cashew lovers, wouldn't they? Does this company have a tautology division in their marketing department?

First Snake Sighting of the Summer

Wood Frog Mating

"It is almost impossible for one male to pry another off [of a female], and the males stay attached to their prospective mates for hours... A female, even if she is dead, can have a dozen suitors attached to her on various appendages and in various positions. Half a dozen or more males may simultaneously try to lock onto a single live female..." -- Bernd Heinrich, Summer World, p. 33-34

I have been in bars just like that, although usually there were no dead females present: at worst, only semi-comatose ones. But those ones definitely had around a dozen suitors attached to various appendages.


(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Friday, June 08, 2012

Presumably It Offers an Advantage, Right?

"Like most summer activities, the frogs' vocal signaling requires an impressive expenditure of energy, and therefore presumably has an advantage." -- Bernd Heinrich, Summer World, p. 40

So, here is a prominent biologist stating a general rule for evaluating traits: if the trait is expensive in terms of energy required, by default we should assume it provides something important to the species in question. And, of course, the more widespread the trait is, the more we should suspect it is adaptive.

So, someone who believes evolutionary biology is the cat's meow, and finds a widespread human practice, so widespread that we have never encountered a single culture where it is absent, and one into which a huge amount of energy is poured, would have to say it is most likely adaptive, right?

Wrong! Not if the practice is religion! Then this universal, high-energy consuming activity turns out to be a social pathology! Everyone does it not because it has helped us to survive, but because it kills us!

Some people suffer a total mental breakdown at the mention of the word religion.

Confused About Evidence

Bernd Heinrich is an absolutely wonderful nature writer. I am now reading my third book that he has written, and everyone has been a pleasure.

But as happens so often, when scientists turn to philosophy, they tend to make a botch of things by treating it as if it is just another branch of physical science. Heinrich quotes Goethe saying "It is so arranged, that the trees do not grow up into the heavens." But, he says, Goethe got it wrong: "There is not one shred of evidence that nature arranges anything at all."

What in the world is he thinking here? (He is not, by the way, complaining about the anthropomorphism of using the word "arrange," since he immediately claims it is actually all of the individual organisms in the forest that do the arranging.) Does he expect to find that lady in the white dress from the margarine commercial slinking through his forest, or see her footprints in the grass when he wakes up? Does he look around for an invoice from her?

It seems to me rather obvious that what Goethe means is something like, "Given what the sun, the wind, the rain, the snow, the ground, carbon atoms, and so on are like, there is a real limit on tree height." All of those factors are nature, and given the way they are, they have "arranged" how high trees can grow.

Think of someone who looks at The David and says "Nice rock formation."

You tell him, "No, it's a sculpture: Michelangelo created this."

"Oh, is 'Michelangelo' the name for some geological process?"

"No, he was a human being: he deliberately made this."

"I don't see any evidence of that: it just looks like a rock to me."

"But what are the odds that a rock would come out looking so precisely like a man?"

"Hey, given that we are here discussing this man-like rock, the odds are one. There are probably an infinity of universes so that all possible rocks are realized somewhere or other."

Similarly, there is no "evidence" that one could point to in order to convince someone who has firmly decided that Chinese is just a jumble of sounds and that the people who seem to be "speaking" it are really just automatons, that it actually is a language with meaning. For every single thing you could point to, he has the ready response, "Oh, that's just the way those automatons respond to that sound." One has to first be willing to believe that Chinese is a language, and only then can one begin to learn it.

One must have faith so that one can know.

That's Monkey Food!

Have you ever offered someone a salad and had them respond "No thanks! That's rabbit food"?

Is there possibly a dumber complaint about some type of food than "Some other animal eats that"? When these people are offered fruit, do they say, "Yuck! Monkey food"? A steak? "Disgusting! Wolf food!" Some clams? "Gross! Octopus food!"

Perhaps their diet consists of cheetos, gummy bears, and slim jims.

Morning Dew

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Urban Wildlife II

My friend Shelby Richter caught one of our neighborhood opossums, locked out of his building, and waiting for his wife to get home with the keys:

Praxeology Theft

I was listening to an ad on the radio for a company purporting to help prevent identity theft. The announcer listed some of the horrors that could occur, and then advised, "Order now before your identity is bought OR sold." (With heavy stress on the "or.")

As disturbing as I find the idea of having my identity stolen, I am even more rattled to learn that it can be bought without also being sold, and sold without also being bought.

Am I Glad? Well...

I have been peripherally aware of Malcolm Gladwell for some time now, but have never read him. So I was interested to see that he was having a sort of e-mail interview with Bill Simmons, who, if not a  giant on the intellectual scene, is a very smart man and entertaining writer. "This," I thought, "should be interesting."

But then... I found Gladwell discussing the "inefficiency" of US sports institutions as follows:

"Here's my point. The sports world 'missed' [Gladwell's college friend] Kingston. He's someone who could have been a world-class athlete but ended up doing something entirely different. [Because, Gladwell tells us, Kingston did not want to go into sports, but into political science.]...

"There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don't want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can't. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example..."

"And then there is my favorite moment in Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, when Michael Oher says that if everyone from his old neighborhood in inner-city Memphis who could play football got the chance to play professional football, they'd need two NFLs. What he was saying is that the efficiency rate of the football talent-search system in Memphis was less than 50 percent. [Wow, that's a pretty far-fetched interpretation of an offhand remark that probably really meant, 'There surely were a lot of great players in Memphis.'] This is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the United States — and Oher is saying that based on his experience we leave half of the available talent on the table."

But there aren't two NFLs. There is just one NFL, and it is all full up. That there are a whole bunch of other people who aren't in the NFL but who are roughly as good as the people who are in, or are in prison and aren't free to play, or don't want to play: well, so what? In what sense is it inefficient for the NFL not to draft people who are in prison? The people in prison won't be able to get to the games now, will they? Not much sense having them on the team. And what does Gladwell want to do about the people like his friend Kingston who didn't want to play pro sports? Should the NFL enslave them and force them to play?! And if Gladwell comes to an NFL team and says "Here are ten guys just about as good as the last ten on your roster: what about them?" I presume the team would say, "Leave us their names: if somebody gets hurt, we'll give them a buzz."

Nowhere does Gladwell argue that the NFL has missed ten quarterbacks way better than Aaron Rogers, or that there were twelve guys in Memphis who could put Jerry Rice to shame at catching the ball. That would be a sign of real inefficiency. What he does evince is not a sign of inefficiency at all!

Is there a little more heft than this in his books? Was he just having a bad day?

Urban Wildlife

I stepped out of the door of my building this evening to be met by... a opossum! (Sorry, but where I grew up, nobody but nobody said the initial 'o', so for us, it is "a opossum.") Here in the most densely populated section of Brooklyn, scooting across Clinton Street.

My daughter and I followed him as he crept through the front yards of three brownstones. He and I then stopped and stared at each other from about fifteen feet apart, and had a brief conversation. (Well, frankly, it was mostly me doing the talking: "What a handsome little fellow!" "That surely is a most prehensile tail you have there!" and so forth.)

We then bid each other good night, and my daughter and I went on our way, and he on his.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Worst (Mis)Information Site on the Web?

My daughter looked up something on Google tonight, and found an answer at "Oh-oh," I warned. "Let's not trust that answer."

She had asked whether red blood cells have nuclei. The answer she found was:

"One of the often recited rules in Biology is that all living things possess a nucleus. This is generally true but the red blood cell is a significant exception to this rule."

Look at the number of problems here:

First some minor ones: "One of the often recited rules..." Has any one ever head this "rule" "recited" before? Is it even correct to call anything in "Biology" a "rule"? And there's the next problem: Why has "Biology" been capitalized? Someone is posing as an expert on the subject, and isn't even aware that the word should be in lowercase there?

But those are really minor nits compared to the fact that the "exception" cited is, in fact, the rule, not the exception, and overwhelmingly the rule. Far, far more living cells have no nucleus than have one. In our own body, cells without nuclei (intestinal bacteria, etc.) outnumber cells with nuclei ten-to-one.

What would make someone who knows so little about biology decide they have the expertise to "help out" on questions like this?

I see answers like this on this site all the time. Avoid it at all costs.

Levon Helm Tribute

At the Brooklyn Bowl last night. My friend David Butler is playing tambourine there behind Joe Russo.

Blogger Complaint Week

Since it is Blogger complaint week, let me ask: Why does Blogger make it so hard to link to YouTube videos? My friend is in a video that just got posted, and I wanted to put it up here. But...

I paste the exact title into Blogger's "Search YouTube" feature, and Blogger finds all sorts of related videos... but not the right one. (I am supposing that is due to its newness.) So I tried just pasting the URL in... and that results in all sorts of completely unrelated videos being returned.

Why in the world can't the geniuses at Google recognize a URL in the search field? (Ten years ago, Java already had a class with a built-in method that could recognize a valid URL.) Or, if that is too much to ask, have a separate "search by URL" function.

Well, I'll put the video up when Blogger deigns to allow me to do so.

The Macroeconomist as Weatherman

Imagine that, over the past 200 years, there have been a bunch of meteorologists studying the weather. What has happened, though, is that one of them, living in Florida, has focused on thunderstorms. He came up with a pretty good model of thunderstorms, but then announced, "The weather is made up of a series of thunderstorms: to be safe, people need to install lots of lightening rods everywhere, and very good drainage so that streets and creeks don't flood."

Another fellow lived in Oklahoma, and he focused on tornadoes. He developed a pretty good model of tornadoes, and then declared. "The weather is characterized by periods of calm followed by tornadoes: to remain safe, people need good solid basements and very sturdy wooden shutters."

A third meteorologist lived in California. His studies focused on seasonal variations in rain. He developed a good model of those, and then professed that "Human weather problems can be solved, if only people find ways to store up all that rain that falls in the winter for use during the long dry months of the summer."

A fourth investigator lived in England. He focused on anticyclonic gloom. He concluded that the government had damned well better do something to break up the high pressure system causing the phenomenon, as the country was just too depressing to live in while it went on and on.

Each of these meteorologists developed followers, who created a school of meteorology pushing their founder's model as the model that described all weather phenomenon. But, at long last, certain meteorologists began to notice that what was going on was that, rather than competing models, one of which might possibly describe the weather as a whole, what we really had were complementary models, each of which described some aspect of the weather.

Of course, all of the above is a metaphor for what I think has really happened in macroeconomics. And I think we are starting to see some recognition that this is so, as the talk linked to above indicates. And, if I am right, then the job of the macroeconomist, when it comes to describing what has occurred and prescribing responses to it, becomes like that of the weather forecaster who must be familiar with all of these different weather phenomena, and learn how to identify which are most helpful in understanding the current weather situation. So we might find people (as I have at times recently) saying things like "Well, the initial problem triggering the current bust was a Hayekian misallocation of resources into housing, but various factors combined to turn the reaction to that into a Keynesian liquidity trap." And we could deal with each problem in a more intelligent and appropriate way, if we recognize that the global macroeconomy is very complex, and like the weather, is likely to contain many types of phenomena, with a different model appropriate for each of them.

The question, generally, should not be "Which model is correct?" but "Which model best applies to this or that aspect of what is occurring right now?"

The Greatest Living Person?

In 1939, according to freshmen at Princeton?

Adolf Hitler. (Hat tip to Kevin Vallier for digging this up.)

I just note this to point out that it is rather dumb to try to smear Mises or Keynes because they made some remarks that were not completely condemnatory of fascism during the 20s or 30s. It was a mistake, but a mistake that a whole boatload of people were making back then.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Stew Leonard Jr. Is in My Car!

I like to listen to CBS News Radio sometimes when I am driving. But I have a problem: I worked at Stew Leonard's driving a forklift in the 1980s. In those days, Stew Sr. was running the shop, and Stew Jr. still was walking around the store, supervising this and that. I would be putting away a palette of green peas in the freezer, and Stew Jr. would open the door, pop his head in, and ask me how everything was going and so on.

The problem is that now, when his voice suddenly sounds from my radio, I am immediately transported back 28 years, and want to start explaining why the ice cream is not yet up in the racks. It's a little disconcerting.

Time to Clean Up!

I now have 213 draft posts in my blogger account for this blog! I think it's about time to start working through this backlog. I warn you because it is possible that at some point I forgot a draft, began it again as a new post, and that version was published. So, I might accidentally publish something that has already come out. I apologize in advance for any such double posting.

Surely the Government Should Be Borrowing Much More Right Now, Correct?

As Brad Delong notes, a business offered the sort of interest rates that the governments of the US, Germany, and Japan are being offered right now would be nuts not to borrow money and buy most every single thing they are now renting or leasing. The debate about the size of the government is an entirely separate issue: right now, at these interest rates, government of whatever size you prefer should be funded more through debt and less through taxes.

R.G. Collingwood Explains Induction

The chief characteristic of inference in the exact sciences, the characteristic of which Greek logicians tried to give a theoretical account when they formulated the rules of the syllogism, is a kind of logical compulsion whereby a person who makes certain assumptions is forced, simply by so doing, to make others. He has freedom of choice in two ways: he is not compelled to make the initial assumption (a fact technically expressed by saying that 'the starting-points of demonstrative reasoning are not themselves demonstrable'), and when once he has done so he is still at liberty, whenever he likes, to stop thinking. What he cannot do is to make the initial assumption, to go on thinking, and to arrive at a conclusion different from that which is scientifically correct.

In what is called 'inductive' thinking there is no such compulsion. The essence of the process, here, is that having put certain observations together, and having found that they make a pattern, we extrapolate this pattern indefinitely, just as a man who has plotted a few points on squared paper and says to himself 'the points I have plotted suggest a parabola', proceeds to draw as much of the parabola as he likes in either direction. This is technically described as 'proceeding from the known to the unknown', or 'from the particular to the universal'. It is essential to 'inductive' thinking, though the logicians who have tried to construct a theory of such thinking have not always realized this, that the step so described is never taken under any kind of logical compulsion. The thinker who takes it is logically free to take it or not to take it, just as he pleases. There is nothing in the pattern formed by the observations he or some-one else has actually made which can oblige him to extrapolate in that particular way, or indeed to extrapolate at all. The reason why this very obvious truth has been so often overlooked is that people have been hypnotized by the prestige of Aristotelian logic into thinking that they see a closer resemblance than actually exists between 'deductive' and 'inductive' thinking, that is, between exact science and the sciences of observation and experiment. In both cases there are, for any given piece of thinking, certain starting-points, traditionally called premisses, and a certain terminal point, traditionally called a conclusion ; and in both cases the premisses 'prove' the conclusion. But whereas in exact science this means that they enforce the conclusion, or make it logically obligatory, in the sciences of observation and experiment it means only that they justify it, that is, authorize anybody to think it who wishes to do so. What they provide, when they are said to 'prove' a certain conclusion, is not compulsion to embrace it, but only permission, a perfectly legitimate sense of the word 'prove' (approuver, probare), as there should be no need to show.

If in practice this permission, like so many permissions, amounts to virtual compulsion, that is only because the thinker who avails himself of it does not regard himself as free to extrapolate or not, just as he pleases. He regards himself as under an obligation to do so, and to do it in certain ways: obligations which, when we inquire into their history, we find to have their roots in certain religious beliefs about nature and its creator God. It would be out of place to develop this statement more fully here ; but not, perhaps, to add that if to-day it seems to some readers paradoxical, that is only because the facts have been obscured by a smoke-screen of propagandist literature, beginning with the 'illuminist' movement of the eighteenth century and prolonged by the 'conflict between religion and science' in the nineteenth, whose purpose was to attack Christian theology in the supposed interests of a 'scientific view of the world' which in fact is based upon it and could not for a moment survive its destruction. Take away Christian theology, and the scientist has no longer any motive for doing what inductive thought gives him permission to do. If he goes on doing it at all, that is only because he is blindly following the conventions of the professional society to which he belongs. -- The Idea of History

Popper was solving a problem that only exist once one tries to remove science from the Christian theology which grounds it.

That was a great rendition!

I was watching TV with someone the other day. The CIA was transporting a terrorist, and the flight they all were on were brought down. When...