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Monday, January 31, 2005

Stop the Presses!

In a survey of over 100,000 high school students in the U.S., a whopping 36% of the students expressed the belief that the press should have to receive government approval before publishing news stories.

Okay, I finally understand why my husband is a nihilist. If there is any hope to be had, I can't find it.

(I guess I shouldn't worry about it; the national media are nothing but lapdogs for the state, anyway.)

Fuzzy Old England

My impression, from watching Monty Python, The Avengers, and other British TV shows from the 60s and 70s, was that England is a vague and somewhat out-of-focus place. I can now assure you that is not the case -- objects are every bit as sharp and focused here as in the US, and their colors are no more or lessed washed out than are the colors of American objects.

However, against the above, I must mark in the surprise-on-the-downside column the fact that England is chock full of very tiny steps -- oh, like an inch high or so. English architects seem to have precisely determined the height at which a step is just too small to be plainly visible, but plenty tall enough to trip you. A favorite place for these mini steps is in pubs, perhaps as one transitions from one room to another, but maybe just hanging out halfway across a single room.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

ACLU defends your right to pizza

Seriously. Say what you will about this group, they occasionally are right on the money. (Note: This might take a while to load with a dial up, and either way you need to turn on your speakers.)

State Transmitted Diseases

A common dismissal of free market anarchism is that "it won't work." I actually think this is right, but not in the sense that the law-and-order critic means. Yes, it is true that if you took just about any group of individuals from the current planet and turned them loose in a virgin territory, that in 20 years they'd have a coercive government of some kind. So in that sense f.m. anarchy "won't work."

But notice that this would be due to the prejudices and faulty theories of the random sample of people. I do not say that they'd be compelled to adopt a government because of rampant crime, vague land titles, etc. No, I am conceding that anarchy "won't work" in the same way that abstinence programs "won't work" to combat teen STDs. It's not that there's anything flawed with the policy of abstinence; on the contrary, it works every time it's tried. (I think I'm stealing that line from Bill Bennett.)

Finally, to continue the analogy, constitutions are like condoms. But I think I should stop here.

Divine Paradoxes

After one of my many thought-provoking LRC articles on matters divine, an emailer thought he'd blow me up by asking, "Can God make a chair so heavy he can't lift it?"

I forwarded the email to a Christian philosophy professor at my college, and he said that most theist thinkers deal with this type of thing by saying that even an omnipotent being needn't have the ability to perform nonsense tasks. E.g. nobody would challenge Aquinas by asking, "Can your God blumber dift?" So in the same way, my colleague said, we shouldn't squirm at questions like this.

But I think in this particular case, that's not the right answer. It is certainly coherent to ask if God can make a chair so heavy He Himself can't lift it. Moreover, it's not even an internally problematic statement--I can make a chair so heavy that I can't lift it. (I concede that I can't make a chair so heavy that God can't lift it.)

Thus I think the correct answer to my smug critic is this: Yes, God does possess the ability to make a chair (or rock) so heavy that He Himself can't lift it, but He chooses not to. It seems to me that this response in no way infringes on God's omnipotence, and indeed fulfills it (whereas my colleague's response doesn't).

Finally, if you say, "OK, but can God make a chair so heavy that He Himself can't lift it, and then does He have the power to lift it?" at that point I would invoke the philosopher's response. I.e. here (unlike the first question), you really are asking, "Can God make A and not-A true at the same time, in a way that appeals to my intuition?" And no, you can't ask God to do the logically impossible, just like He can't be expected to blumber dift.

Overheard in a Fitting Room

While trying on nursing nightwear yesterday (undoubtedly some of the frumpiest clothing in existence), I overheard two teenage girls talking in front of the large mirror in the fitting room.

Girl 1: Amy Byer is very petite, so she designs her clothes for shorter girls.
Girl 2: Uh huh.
Girl 1: They're cut so that they look right on someone who's not very tall.
Girl 2: (nothing)
Girl 1: Anyway, Amy Byer is not a slutty designer. She designs very classy stuff. It's not supposed to be slutty looking.
Girl 2: Right.
Girl 1: (pause) So I think what I'm going to do is just bring my mom here, and point out this outfit.

Man did that bring back memories! I don't think I ever spent time inventing rationalizations about petite designers (althought Amy Byer may very well be petite), but I certainly do remember wanting clothes that my mom considered way too trampy. I looked at myself in the mirror, and saw myself, now 21 and wearing a long floral nightgown cut so that my infant son has easy access to his middle-of-the-night meals, and realized that a) whoa! has my life changed since I was 13, b) how ironic it is that now that I pay for my own clothes, I buy things my mother would have been thrilled to buy, and c) I am SO GLAD that looking trampy is no longer a priority for me.

The Ongoing Cost

Every week the US stays in Iraq costs the lives of 14 American soldiers and $2 billion.

The above figures are sourced to "Christopher Preble, a Navy veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who directs foreign policy at the conservative Cato Institute..."

I didn't realize Cato even had its own foreign policy!

Urgent!

Is there a single, better indicator that an e-mail can be deleted without further ado than it having a subject line such as, "URGENT: PLEASE GET BACK TO ME"?

Carmen and the Devil

I've been reading the brothers Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales recently. The various stories about the devil reminded me of one of my favorite snippets of lyric in rock'n'roll:

I picked up my bag, I went looking for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the Devil walking side by side
I said "Hey Carmen, come on, let's go downtown''
She said "I gotta go but my friend can stick around''

from "The Weight" by The Band

Saturday, January 29, 2005

I'm a Rambler...

I heard a song the other night that brought me back to my childhood. It was typical of the music I heard at home while growing up:

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler
I'm a long way from home
And if you don't like me
Then leave me alone
I'll eat when I'm hungry
I'll drink when I'm dry
If the moonshine don't kill me
I'll live till I die

I wonder if that influenced the subsequent course of my life?

Three of my four grandparents impressed upon me, by example, the notion that the ideal way to spend one's adult years is drinking and smoking. (And that's "way," not "ways," because those are not two activities, but the name for one activity requiring a pair of accessories.) I don't recall seeing my maternal grandparents drunk, but I'll also don't recall seeing them without a drink for much longer than it took to re-pour.

I can't say if my paternal grandfather would get drunk when we visited, because he wouldn't rise from his big, leather armchair. He would have a can of Rheingold in one hand, a Camel no-filter in the other, and the Mets on the TV in front of him. Other than grumbling about a bad call or play, he wouldn't speak much either, so I can't use slurred speech as an indicator of how far along toward inebriation he was.

I don't remember my maternal grandmother drinking much. Her jobs were to fetch the cans of Rheingold, so that my grandfather didn't have to get up from the chair, and, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, get the dinner ready on time.

Tomes to Sleep By

When I went to bed last night I planned to read for a little while. I picked up a book of analytical philosophy I've been reading. I thought of the densely constructed arguments involving detailed analysis of individual sentence forms that awaited me inside. I dropped the book back onto my nightstand, shut off the light, and fell asleep a moment later.

So, I've been reading books so boring that it's not even necessary to get to the words inside to be put to sleep -- simply touching them is enough.

Genetic Programming

Today I've been watching Serena Williams play Lindsey Davenport in the finals of the Australian Open. Williams apparently has some problem with her stomach muscles and is having difficulty moving. On one point, Davenport forced Williams into her backhand corner. Williams returned that shot successfully, but pretty much straight up the middle -- setting Davenport up well. I suspected that Davenport would now hit to the opposite corner, giving Williams a long run to get to the ball. And so did Williams, who began moving back toward the middle of the court.

But, instead, Davenport sent the ball even deeper into Williams backhand corner. This forced Williams to change direction, putting a strain on her sore stomach muscles, and left her further from her forehand corner than before. She returned weakly up the middle. Now, Davenport hit a line drive into Williams' forehand corner. Williams didn't even run after it.

Some of you out there might mistakenly be thinking: That was a very clever decision on Davenport's part. But you'd be wrong! You see, humans are only vehicles for genes to reproduce themselves. We don't really make decisions, we just follow our genetic programming. What you fail to realize is that our ancestors, in their generations of life as hunter-gatherers on the African Savannah, were programmed with an instinct that hardwired the following response into our nervous system: When you find yourself in the finals of a major tennis tournament, facing a dangerous opponent, but one whose mobility is limited by injury, try to force her to move around the court a little more than usual. Therefore, when the "game-situational perceptive programming" through which evolution has enabled us to recognize certain court situations as matching one of hundreds of eidetic patterns stored in our genes indicated the above situation held, Davenport automatically sent a second shot into the backhand corner.

It's amazing that certain people can still believe outlandish explanations of events that involve implausible things like "human choice"!

Friday, January 28, 2005

What Floats a Politician's Boat

My local MP (Barry Gardiner) sends out a little promotional pamphlet to the houses in the area he represents. In it, he quotes Councilor Jim Moher as saying, "Nothing has given me more satisfaction this year than the road resurfacing in the Bush Grove Estate."

Could you imagine if this were true?! The most satisfying thing in Jim's life last year was a bit of road resurfacing! If you ever think your life is boring, just remember Jim.

Heard in a Pub

A woman, 60ish, is sitting at a table in a pub. She is in her weekend, going-out best, her face is caked with makeup, and she is a bit drunk. She is talking to a man, about her age, sitting on a stool behind her. In a hard tone, she asks him, "Are you with me, or are you not? Are you with me, or are you not?" She tries to continue with the same attitude, but her voice cracks a little as she says, "Are you?"

Suddenly, she sounds like a young girl, begging for affection. The crack opened the tough veneer, and allowed 40 years of pain to show through for a moment.

Sometimes, life breaks my heart.

Quote of the Day

"We foreigners do play some part in our own history, too, you know. We're not just background for US policy."
-- Sudha Shenoy

So You Wanna Be A Rock 'N Roll Star...

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Remember the Holocaust

And honestly, how could we ever forget? It's all over cnn.com's main page--remembering the Holocaust. The survey question at the bottom of the page is, "Could the Holocaust happen again?" You can choose yes or no. Now, what exactly do they mean? Does the question mean, "Could a regime with a racist agenda again take over a nation and set out to cleanse the gene pool?" Or perhaps, "Will the Jews ever be persecuted again?"

A survey I'd like to see the results of would be, "Do you believe that the checks and balances in place to control governments will prevent another holocaust?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Fat Police

ABC News is runnning a story on a new law in Texas requiring schools to send "obesity report cards" to each child's parents. They find some lady, who needs to lose about 80 pounds herself, who wishes this had happened years ago. You see, her 12-year-old daughter is 100 pounds overweight, and, well...

Well, what? If only she had received a fat report on the girl, this lady would have noticed that her daughter has a completely speherical shape? I mean, it never occurred to her that her own example and what she was feeding the girl had any connection to her Jabbba-the-Hut-like appearance? While the girl gulped down that fifth hotdog, it never crossed the mind of this dingbat of a mother that four franks might have been plenty?

What is disgusting about people like this is that, because of their own stupidity, they feel self-righteous about bringing the State further into the lives of the rest of us.

Coma

I just flicked on the TV, and there is some show on called "Coma."

Now, that sounded action-packed. I just hope it was a movie or a special, and not a series!

How Old Are You Now?

The other night I was out with some of my coursemates when I noticed the head of one of them pop up and study me for a moment. His eyes regarded me with a contemplative, calculative gaze. I was certain that his companion had just asked him, "How old is that old man in our program, anyway?"

I pictured the rest of the conversation going as follows:

"Well, he looks to be about 65 -- but that would be really old to be doing a Master's."

"On the other hand, he acts like he's about 25."

"Wait a second, we could..."

"Average them! He's 45!"

(As I understand it, when faced with two or more numbers whose meaningful relationship to each other one cannot fathom, it's always OK to average them. Then, at the very least you have turned several inscrutable figures into one, representing a clearcut decrease in confusion. Choose the method of averaging that looks most likely to produce the final figure that backs your pet theory.)

Weird Science

So, I write a little article on the history of science for LewRockwell.com. Along with the usual nice e-mails, I get one person telling me the Earth really doesn't move and that the stars rotate around it -- does he have any idea how fast they'd have to be moving? Another "proves" to me that the Moon's gravity can't cause the tides, since it turns negative part way to Earth -- that's why things fall back to Earth, isn't it? -- and so it can't affect the oceans.

Oh No!

I've found someone who is as fond of weird and puzzling goings-on as I am:

"This was strange. After almost getting killed a few times during the afternoon, I retreated to the relative safety of my apartment, but by nightfall was bored enough to venture back out in the storm. I was a block away from some really big fallen trees what looked like a truck and a few guys working to clear the road. Assuming it was the city, I started walking down there to get some photos and see if I could help. A cop car pulled in to the other end of the street, and all of a sudden the truck starts hauling serious ass, zooming down toward me in reverse and dragging the tree in the pic — which wasn't small — from some chains. This huge muscle dude jumps out, screaming, "Go! Go! Fucking go!" and unhooks the tree, leaving it smack dab in the middle of the road. Then he jumps back in and they speed off. The cops had pulled somebody over and were totally ignoring all this. I was standing there going, "What the fuck? Were those guys... Tree poachers? Outlaw road-clearing vigilantes?" It was all pretty surreal. I mean, from what little I could make out it seemed like muscle dude and his buddy were being more helpful than nefarious."

Mission Accomplished

It's a good thing we won that war in Iraq a couple of years ago, otherwise US troops might still be dying there.

Window Cleaning

When I walk down the street and see people inside their house, cleaning their windows, I imagine that they like me so much that that they can't stop waving.

Holiday Fun

Well, this is a bit old, but worth checking: the Hughes family Christmas. (Via Gene Healy.)

Not an ID Card, Not an ID Card...

Radley Balko expresses his relief that some new legislation would not create a national ID card.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Breaking the Rules

Getting on the escalator at the underground station tonight, I noticed a sign reading:

STAND ON THE RIGHT
HOLD THE HANDRAIL
NO STROLLERS
DOGS MUST BE CARRIED

Well, I was standing on the right, I was holding the handrail, and I certainly had no stroller. But I wasn't carrying a dog!

Luckily, no one noticed. But I'm thinking of getting something small -- a rat terrier? -- so that I can avoid trouble in the future.

Democrats come to believe individual votes don't count

So they sabotage entire voting blocs as a result. Or, at least, that's one explanation for their behavior.

My Most Interesting Article Ever...

...is one click away.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Chew On This

Topologically speaking, the inside of your throat, stomach, and intestines are outside your body.

From the Land of Beads and Breasts

Greetings all contiguous, colonial, and other (that would be Hawaiian and Alaskan) Americans, from the Land of Eternal Corruption, aka the Big Easy, home of naked breasts and big beads:

It has been reported by our local rag, The Times Picayune (http://www.nola.com/t-p/), that the members of our esteemed (I don't bother with quotation marks around that word since no one could possibly mistake the sarcasm) state legislature have expressed dissatisfaction with the current limits on legal bribery they may accept from lobbyists.

A legislator may not receive a ticket to any event that is worth more than $100. Unfortunately, with the cost of the New Orleans Saints football tickets being what they are, that won't get you a seat outside of the Superdome Nosebleed Section. Yes, woe and alas, the cap on their bribery has not kept up with inflation.

So they actually say in public, that they would like a seat "a little close to reality." Those people wouldn't know reality if it crawled up their bum! They want to wave to us from the fifty yard line and expect us to be happy about it.


The Sky Is Falling!

I walked out of the house this morning, and tiny white things were falling out of the sky! They were fairly light and quite cold.

Does anyone have any idea what they are? Is it safe to walk outside when they are around?

Writing from the Provinces

Below, Bob wishes that someone blogging here lived in a country other than the US. So do I, so do I!

Some people mistakenly think that I live outside the US, simply because I live in the UK. Not true! I live in an overseas province of the US. This is obvious whenn you consider the fact that, if the UK were an independent nation, it would have its own foreign policy, based on its own national interests. Instead, what happens here is that our colonial administrator, Toby Bear or something of the sort, whenever faced with a question related to foreign policy, flies to Washington and asks George Bush what to do.

George, of course, has no idea, but he asks Dick Cheney, and then tells our administrator to do that. And our fellow complies. So there you have it.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Get Medieval on Your Argument

People always make fun of medieval scholastics arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But I want to see the actual arguments! Wouldn't that be fascinating?

Natural Rights and Rapists

I don't know if this has to do with lascivious libertarians, or just that fact that 99% of the discussants are academic males, but for some time I've been painfully aware that whenever a person wants to make a point about legal rights, he will always use an example involving a woman getting raped. I myself always had this initial motivation as well, until I noticed the trend. Now I always use a guy getting mugged instead; the point almost never hinges on rape per se.

Doctors and Abortion

I recently heard on the news that some group of "medical professionals" is lobbying Parliament to abolish all abortion laws in the UK, claiming that such issues should be private matters between a patient annd her doctor.

Why does anyone take doctors seriously when they pull this crap? (The same sort of thing goes on with doctors and hanndguns in the US.) Look, you bunch of overtrained technicians, you're experts on matters like the safest way to abort a 4-month-old fetus or how to best treat a gunshot wound. The increased weight that should be given to your opinion about whether abortions or handguns should be legal, simply because you are a doctor, is exactly nada.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Best of All Possible Worlds

In response to my LRC articles on Christianity, a frequent objection runs like this: If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is the world such a terrible place? I'd like to sketch a brief response that, on the one hand, is just the familiar free will answer, but on the other is (I hope) a bit deeper. (To get the full context, you should read my views on natural law and miracles.)

I claim (with Pangloss) that this really is the best of all possible worlds, just like we would expect from the God of Abraham. In order for the material universe to be intelligible, it must obey certain simple laws. And in order for everything else to work out just right, certain intemediate things have to happen.

For example, I used to be suicidally depressed. But I do not bemoan one moment of my life, especially the wrongs others have committed against me. (I do wish that I hadn't myself done bad things, so in that sense I regret the past, but what I'm saying now is that I've learned from what happened, and it helps me understand when others do the same.) The reason for this is that my present level of understanding of what motivates others could not possibly have occurred if I hadn't "been there" myself; I think God allowed me to sink into such misery because He knew I would bounce back and then (I hope) help others.

Now of course the critic demands, "Aha! But why do others have to be in such misery at all?" But questions like this seem a bit presumptuous to me, akin to saying, "Why isn't the charge on an electron 2% higher?" When it comes to the physical sciences, most observers of the universe have a profound sense of awe, and appreciate the interconnectedness of it all.

Yet when it comes to the social world, people often see nothing but wreckage. However, one possible defense of God's plan is that His story (i.e. history) is the most fascinating story every invented. Would you want to read a book where nobody ever suffered?

This blog post certainly isn't the place to defend my views fully, but I just wanted to get this down. Let me close with a final observation: To those who wrote me and asked indignantly, "Why did your loving God allow the Holocaust??" I can give at least this answer: For one thing, if you are under 45 years of age, chances are you wouldn't have been born had the Holocaust never occurred.

Foreign Reporting of the Tsunami Toll

Don't get me wrong: I completely understand why it happens. But I still felt a bit uncomfortable when I'd see headlines such as, "TSUNAMI KILLS 100,000--Four American tourists missing."

I wonder if other countries are similar in this respect, or if it really is the self-absorbed USA? Gee, if only someone on this blog lived in another country...

What Are the Main Types of Law in Britain

1) Common Law
2) Criminal Law
3) Jude Law

I just saw Closer last night. I recommmend it very highly. At first I found the rapid cuts between scenes that take place months or years apart was disconcerting. But the director maintains a steady rhythm with the cuts, so that after a while I settled into his pace. And this is another movie, like Eternal Sunshine and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, that illustrates Susannne Langer's theory that the primary effect of cinema is to create a virtual dream.

Friday, January 21, 2005

A Book About the Non-Existent

As noted by Jim Henley, this one is a great irony: There's a new book out called The Neocon Reader.
After spending the last 3 years denying their own existence, the neocons have collected a book of their writing!

Let's Go Somewhere Together... So I Can Check My Blackberry

It's amusing to watch people come into a pub together and then immediately devote themselves into checking their cell phones, digital organizers, etc.

You Can Feel It Working

An ad for Glaviscon says "You can actually feel it working to relieve your distress."

What would it mean if it was relieving your distress but you couldn't feel it doing so?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

why me?

For the last couple of weeks here in ole Miami Beach, the weird cycle has been on super high. Sometimes I wonder if I am just a magnet for weirdoes, freaks and oddballs but some of it hasn't even involved me personally. However, a couple of them have been really irritating.

The first incident that alerted me to something freaky being up is the tagger incident. About ten days ago, right after dinner, I hear this spraying sound just outside my kitchen window. I honestly thought it was the weird black guy who occasionally used to sit on my stoop changing his underwear and spraying it with cheap perfume. Ghastly smell. Figuring it was time to put an end to it, I walked over to find nobody there but the sound continued. Then, I imagined it was someone urinating under my air conditioner again. Nope. It was a graffiti "artist" spraypainting his tag on the side of my white van. We looked at each other for a moment. He ran. I ran. He slowed down around the first corner but heard me approaching behind him and took off again. When I realized there was no way to catch him, I just started yelling whatever obscenities my distraught little mind could lob at him and this encouragement: "Come back and fight like a man!!!" The twit probably has at least seventy-five pounds and a few inches on me but I was so obviously furious and bloodthirsty he had no choice but to run away. He was no plain juvie delinquent either. I'd say about 24. Hispanic and very stupid as you'll see why.

About a week later, I'm in my alley in broad daylight and I see him. It's definitely him. Same lardy physique, same blue baseball cap, tee shirt and dark jeans. His back is to me but then he turns his face to the right and it's the same face. I'm positive it's him. Guess what he's doing now? He's pulling a PC out of the trunk of a bright, white Cadillac! He's carrying it into a building just one building over from mine. He's with a middle-aged bald gringo. What on earth is going on? Since I'm not sure what to do, I watch him drive off but at least I know where to find his buddy should there be another incident.

Since then, it's been common crazy dancing bums digging through trash, a guy passed out on the stoop that cannot be budged, the neighbor yelling obscenities at an invisible victim and what appear to be drug deals. Not THAT unusual but the quantity is annoying. Till today. Today, some creep decided that it would be amusing to follow me home from the bakery. I wasn't looking my best either but something in the jaunty way I held that loaf of french bread said "bother me." I noticed right away since he followed me while I jaywalked in the middle of the block. I paused to look at some construction, so did he. I turned and went in the opposite direction, so did he. I turned the corner, so did he. I did another 180 and walked into the police courtyard. He didn't follow me there. I figured he was going to come around the block to cut me off at the next street so I waited behind a column. Bingo. Within five minutes he was there searching for his prey. When he passed I took the long way home. There was no confronting this guy. He looked like the kind of nutball 50+ Hispanic guy who gets off even if there's a female holding a knife and threatening castration. Any reaction is good to those types. Engaging the cops would've meant wasting more time so there wasn't much I could do except lose him.

That's your beach report for this week surfers and dolls. I hope this season passes real soon.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Plaxico?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a receiver named "Plaxico Burress." What sort of name is Plaxico? It sounds like some space-age building material.

Under the Tuscan Sun

I saw an add for the pay-per-view showing of this movie. The ad slogan was: "Life offers you a thousand choices. All you have to do is take one."

Could there be a better indication that this movie should never have been made? I mean, is the above supposed to be an intriguing plot summary of the movie, one that lures the viewer to purchase the film?

Monday, January 17, 2005

Denying Responsibility

I'm presenting at LSE next week, and here is how I'm listed on the events web page:

Thursday, 27 January 5:00 - 8:00 pm
PLURALISM IN ECONOMICS SEMINARS
Eugene Callahan
Mises Institute
Does Economics Suffer from a Confusion of Categorically Distinct Inquiries?

Then, in March, I present at the Mises Institute, and here is how they list me:

"Ideal type Theory: Its Development and Application" Gene Callahan (London School of Economics)

Obviously, both groups are quite sensible, and want to make sure that all blame for what I say falls on the other one.


Friday, January 14, 2005

Tick Tock

I fell asleep in my bedroom in Colindale last night for the first time in a month. When I went to bed, I didn't even notice if my alarm clock was in my room, let alone running. When I first awoke, I looked for it to find out what time it was. Once I located it, the sound of its ticking seemed to boom throughout the room, preventing me from getting back to sleep for 20 minutes. Yet, the clock was in the exact same place it had been all night.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Random Thoughts

* For those of you who also use PCs, let me ask you this: Have you ever "upgraded" your software online, and been happy with the result??

* You know what I want to see? A movie that follows the protagonist around, and we see that he really needs to get somewhere in order to avert disaster. He's zooming along in his car, and then all of a sudden--a cop blocks the road and commandeers (is that the word?) the car. The reason I say this is that you always see such scenes from the POV of the cop, and you're always relieved that the cop gets to chase the villain in the civilian's car. The camera never follows up on the poor sap who got ordered out of his car at gunpoint.

* I'd always like to watch a movie in which we watched two competitors who had cool theme music. E.g. when you're watching Top Gun and Loggins starts singing, you just know Tom Cruise is gonna smoke some Russkies. But what if the camera switched to the Russkies, and all of a sudden the music was the Lone Ranger theme?! Maverick et al. had better cruise out of there in a hurry.

Back in the UK

While walking to LSE today I was mindlessly staring down at the sidewalk when I noticed, at the foot of a bank building, a slab of concrete with the phrase "Basement Smoke Extract" inscribed on it with raised metal letters. I walked around the two sides of the building's perimeter that I could access, and found a similar slab every few feet.

There were no vents in the slabs, and no other apparent connection to extracting basement smoke.

Any suggestions?

I do think it's a nifty product idea: "And I'll take a can of Basement Smoke Extract as well."

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Ideal Types and the Historical Method

A number of significant social theorists, including Max Weber, Ludwig von Mises, and Alfred Schutz, have contended that the proper method of historical analysis employs ideal types to comprehend the past.

For example, Schutz, one of the foremost exponents and developers of the theory of ideal types, held that they are not merely the constructs of the social theorist, but also constitutive of the everyday social world. Except for the case of the "pure" Thou-orientation that occurs in face-to-face encounters, all of our relationships with and understandings of other people are mediated by the use of ideal types of varying degrees of anonymity. (The concept that one way of classifying ideal types is according to how anonymous they are can be made clear with a simple example: we might, in order of decreasing anonymity, regard some individual as an instance of the ideal type "Englishman," "early-twentieth-century Englishman," "early-twentieth-century Londoner," "early-twentieth-century, working class Londoner," and " early-twentieth-century London chimney sweep.") Since the historian, qua historian, is never in a Thou-relationship with the historical actors whose deeds he seeks to comprehend, Schutz's view implies that he must employ one or more ideal types in his undertaking. Roger Koppl contends that, for Schutz, what differentiates history from a more theoretical social science such as sociology is only the degree of anonymity of the ideal types it employs: "What we call either 'history' or 'applied economics' entails the use of relatively concrete ideal types. 'Theory' uses more anonymous types."

Mises offers a concise summation of the view under consideration: "Although unique and unrepeatable, historical events have one common feature: they are human action…. What counts for history is always the meaning of the men concerned: the meaning that they attach to the state of affairs they want to alter, the meaning they attach to their actions, and the meaning they attach to the effects produced by the actions."

Since the subject matter of history is composed of human meanings, Mises believes that historical research must employ some conceptual apparatus to abstract categories of meaning from the myriad of specific meanings that have composed the circumstances and actions of historical individuals. He says: "The aspect from which history arranges and assorts the infinite multiplicity of events is their meaning. The only principle which it applies for the systemization of its objects_--men, ideas, institutions, social entities, and artifacts_-- is meaning affinity. According to meaning affinity it arranges the elements into ideal types.

"Ideal types are specific notions employed in historical research and in the representation of its results." (Emphasis mine. All of the above quotes are from http://www.mises.org/humanaction/chap2sec9.asp.)

But is the analysis of past events in terms of their conformity to various ideal types actually the most characteristic method of history? Michael Oakeshott, who, among his varied intellectual achievements, is regarded among the foremost philosophers of history of the twentieth century, examined that view and, in the end, rejected it. He did not dismiss the effort to understand the past with the aid of ideal types as incoherent or fruitless, but argued that it could not achieve a fully historical account of the situations it sought to explain. Furthermore, he suggested that a method for achieving such an account does exist.

While I find the argument Oakeshott offers against regarding ideal typification as the fundamental tool of historiography to be sufficient and convincing as it stands, I believe it is worthwhile giving it a second exposition for three reasons:

1) Oakeshott presents his case in a dense and, at least to those unversed in it, rather obscure prose style. As Paul Franco, author of a recent introduction to Oakeshott's thought, puts it, "Reading the late Oakeshott, like reading the late Henry James, can be a vertiginous experience." I suspect that a satisfactory understanding of some of his points requires of the reader a more than passing familiarity with most of his latter work. So it seems to me that an exegesis of his case, employing a less individualized vocabulary, could be of use to anyone who is interested in historical methodology but who is not prepared to undertake an extensive study of Oakeshott's thought.

2) While it is clear to me that Oakeshott is addressing ideal-type methodology in the passages I cite below, he neither explicitly says so, nor does he cite the theorists of history whose methodology he is critiquing. (The paucity of references throughout Oakeshott's works is a general problem plaguing any scholar attempting to locate their place in the broader intellectual currents of his time.) As a result, a search of the literature on ideal types is not likely to even turn up Oakeshott's analysis. I hope that an exposition of Oakeshott's argument that is more transparent as to what view is being examined will aid others doing research in the area.

3) Although, as I mentioned above, I consider Oakeshott's case to be adequate to his purpose, it is a rather terse consideration of ideal-type methodology, appearing in a book addressing many other facets of historical understanding. Therefore, an expanded version of it, particularly one that fleshes out the bare bones presented by Oakeshott with some concrete examples, may serve to make his argument more accessible.

So, let us examine his argument in some detail. He launches his consideration of whether ideal typification is the primary method of history by acknowledging that it is an historical method: "A past composed of carefully anatomized situations of various magnitudes, durations and constitutions, themselves composed of mutually and conceptually related occurrences, is certainly a past which has been endowed with a certain level of historical intelligibility…. [It] cannot be denied the character of an historical enquiry."

The term "ideal type" does not appear in the passage just quoted -- indeed, as I mentioned above, Oakeshott never uses it anywhere in the argument under consideration here. (In fact, a general difficulty in comparing his work to that of others is his predilection for developing his own vocabulary for expressing his ideas.) Therefore, it may seem unclear if he is even referring to ideal types. However, he goes on to mention some examples of the approach he is contemplating that should, I hope, demonstrate that he is doing just that: "An historian… who spells out the character of Elizabethan Puritanism or of a doctrine identified as 'civic humanism,' who unfolds 'the structure of English politics on the accession of George III,' or who (like Fernand Braudel) specifies the 'energy resources' of Europe in the late eighteenth century…"

After conceding that this view of the past is an historical one -- unlike, for example, the legendary past or the past mined as a source of stories with which to guide practical conduct -- Oakeshott declares that, nevertheless, it fails to yield an understanding of the past that is completely historical in character: "But although it has been called the most sophisticated understanding of the past, it is, I think, an unstable level of historical understanding. It recognizes (or half-recognizes) what it cannot itself accommodate, and it cannot defend itself against being superseded by what is a genuine competitor, critical of it in its own terms, and thus capable of superseding it."

Oakeshott holds "an historical past may be regarded as a passage of historical change." But contemplating past events as instances of an ideal type necessarily marginalizes the consideration of change. Because an ideal type is an abstraction constructed from what the theorist sees as common patterns exhibited in a number of different historical situations, it focuses the theorist's attention on an unchanging constellation of properties present in each of them, and directs it away from the unique and contingent events that led to each exemplar, and also away from the particular and ever-shifting characteristics by which each instance of the type differs from the idealization. The historian engaged in ideal type analysis "purports to be anatomizing a bygone present situational identity in terms of its constituent occurrences. No doubt he recognizes himself to be concerned with a passage of time which contains genuine change; but his enquiry, centred upon the articulation of a situational identity, cannot properly accommodate this recognition."

Furthermore, the very nature of an ideal type as a static constellation of intelligibly related patterns of social life renders it ill-suited for discovering the specific historical events that explain the appearance of each unique instance of the type at a particular time and in a particular place: "And further, an engagement to anatomize an historical situation, in specifying its duration, recognizes it as an emergence and admits its evanescence; but the enquiry is not concerned to abate the mystery of its appearance upon the scene, to investigate the mediation of its appearance or to trace the vicissitudes of its evanescence. It is concerned only with correctly inferring an intelligible structure composed of notionally contemporaneous mutually related constituent occurrences."

Oakeshott sums up his critique as follows: "These, then, are what I take to be the historical defects of an enquiry concerned to infer from record a past composed of situational identities: transitory passages of human engagement represented as patterned situations composed of mutually related occurrences which come and go but are here halted and made to gyrate in a notional interval between coming and going."

He goes on to suggest the solution to the difficulties he has pointed out: "And the remedy for the shortcomings of this level of historical understanding is not, I think, in doubt. It lies in an enquiry designed to assemble a past, not of anatomized situational identities composed of mutually related occurrences, but of historical events and conjunctions of historical events."

Ideal-type analysis yields, by its very nature, an understanding of an event in terms of its similarity to other events. It may very well succeed in rendering the past more intelligible. But, for Oakeshott, it fails to produce a fully historical past. That can only arise from a contemplation of the past as a passage of differences whose continuity makes a subsequent event explicable. In his view, it is the unique task of history to comprehend the past not in terms of whatever regularities it may exhibit, what typical situations may be abstracted from it, or any general precepts it is held to illustrate, but as a assemblage of events each of which is unique and unrepeatable. Such a view does not disparage other approaches to understanding the past; it only proposes that they "do not mix with and cannot take the place of an historical understanding concerned with what was actually the case, there and then, in terms of situations composed entirely of mutually related occurrences inferred from the record."

between scylla and charybdis

I just came across this aggravating website. Poor Jessica Worrell cannot live with her father because the American government refuses to let him live here. He overstayed a visa once. He has a daughter, wife and job waiting for him so he is no slob. Jessica, in turn, is not allowed by the Australian government to go live with her father because her health care costs are allegedly too much for their system to handle. She has a mental disability.

The choices for Jessica seem to be either to go without her dad and possibly suffer from even more mental trauma that could shut her down permanently or for her father to come here as a fugitive...unless there is enough uproar for somebody in government to champion their cause which brings us back to that website. They are asking for us letter-writing cranks to pester the government enough to send a champion. So if you happen to be part of the few, the proud, the cranky visit Jessica's website.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Tsunami Relief

A couple of days ago, my oldest son brought home a note from school urging students bring in any of a number of items -- diapers, candles, flashlights, batteries, etc. -- and donate them to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. The school plans to ship all of the goods received to Sri Lanka at the end of this week.

After reading it, I found myself somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, I think it's is admirable to help people in distress, and I want to impart that idea to my son. On the other hand, this way of going about helping them seems so damned inefficient. Scores of parents are going to individually head out to stores and buy these items at retail prices. Their kids will haul them to school, where someone will have to package them all up, and then the school will have to pay to ship this fairly small collection of goods to the Indian Ocean.

Wouldn't people who want to help out get a lot more bang for their buck by simply giving money to some agency that can buy large quantities of these things at wholesale prices and ship them in bulk? Yes, bringing in specific items may make the kids feel more connected to the situation, but is the goal to feel charitable or to help people who are suffering as much as possible?

Oh, the burdens of having a parent who understands some economics!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Urban Pants

OK, I just don't get the gig with the fad among inner-city youngins for wearing one's pants so that the waistband is down around one's privates. I'm pretty fashion tolerant, but this strikes me as using a piece of clothing in a nonsensical way, similar to wearing shoes on your ears or a hat stuffed up your ass.

And most puzzling of all are the street dealers who adopt the style. I mean, if you had a job that involved periodically fleeing the cops, wouldn't you want to dress so that you didn't have a waistband around your thighs?