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Thursday, June 28, 2007

La Moustache


If you like subtle psychological thrillers, I highly recommend the French film La Moustache. The story centers on a man who asks his wife if he should shave his moustache of 13 years, to which she replies she would not recognize him without it. After shaving and attempting to surprise her, she does not notice the change and insists that he has never had one. Learning that his father has been dead a year and his friends don't exist, he slowly spirals into an almost sensible madness that he can only escape from by clinging to the eyes of his wife. Some might find it to be unsatisfying as entertainment or smacking of French pretentiousness (not a redundancy, I remind the reader), but I think this is a very singular story, satisfying in its own odd way.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Aargh!

Reading this article, I found:

"And then there is the related set of concerns: the emerging prospect that the world’s demand for oil will outstrip supply..."

(Bashes head on keyboard fifteen times.) Supply and demand are curves my friend, curves and one of them cannot "outstrip" the other. Furthermore, the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied will always match at the equilibrium price. The quantity demanded will always "outstrip" the quantity supplied at a price below equilibrium, and vice versa at a price above equilibrium. The sentence above means nothing more than, "The price of oil is likely to keep rising."

Dat's Fast

New IBM machine can hold over 800,000 processors.

Ya Gotta Play Hurt

Or so my pappy used to say.

Ann Coulter...

really looks like a ghoul from a horror movie, doesn't she?

An Economist Views Bugs

I recall my friend Larry White talking about the bug zappers people put in their backyards: "So, I'm supposed to reduce the number of bugs in my yard by attracting them?"

The British? Who Are They?

Looking at this book, which I am scheduled to review, I found:

"Yet, keep in mind just how narrow life in rural India was for so long. In 1952, on the fifth anniversary of independence, the Indian government commissioned a survey to find out if the average Indian villager had heard yet that the British had gone. The study was quietly cancelled when early results showed that the average villager had never heard that the British had ever arrived!"

Another Aspect of the Student Loan Fiasco

In this one I talk about why kickbacks aren't a problem in private business, plus I use a Friends reference.

If You See Something...

Say Something.

Signs to this effect are all over the NYC subway. The always give me the urge to run up to an MTA employee yelling "I saw something, I saw something."

"What?"

"God, I don't know... it was long, and noisy, and seemed to consist of many body segments, with portals that emit and swallow up people!"

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Historicity of Jesus

I really don't understand anti-Christians who try to argue "Jesus never existed." Certainly, someone came up with the doctrines we call Christianity. So what if his name was Bill and not Jesus? What possible issue could turn on that question?

Practical, Marginal Revolution

It's commonly aphorized that socialism is good in theory, but not in practice. Socialists consider this is a sad joke, because they have seen socialism work in practice, never mind the theory. We have public libraries, collectively owned roads, medicine, public schools, public welfare, etc. And though there are often attendant problems, there are some cities in the world in which these socialistic models thrive. More primordially, the family is evidence that spontaneous cooperation and collective pooling of resources independent of market mechanisms is not only viable, but optimal in diverse contexts. It works. Mises' classic argument about the impossibility of economic calculation in socialism is an overstatement. It is a difficulty inherent in socialistic planning, perhaps, but not an impossibility. The state of theoretical investigations seems irrelevant and distracting to tried and true paths developed by trial and error. There is a tendency in libertarian and conservative circles to deride socialism, but there is a pressing need to respect our differences and work past political ideologies when possible.

My own attitude toward politics began to form in junior high school. A recent convert to the fortress of atheism, deciding that the best we hairless apes could do was to help each other out and give justice on Earth to those with none, I naturally gravitated to socialism. There may have been no Heavenly Father, but we could still act as brothers and sisters to those in need, doing our best to create a heaven in this life. A cursory look at all the various political postures suggested that all those who championed similar causes were leftists. UNICEF, the Peace Corps, local charities-- filled with leftists. Sincere leftists want to relieve suffering and misery in a world where suffering and misery are ubiquitous. But for those that seek rational causes of the economic and social ills that plague society and gravitate toward economics and political science, government itself is eventually seen to be the destructive Golem churning civil society for its own sake. Thusly paved is the path from socialism to libertarianism. Centralized socialism doesn't work well, while free markets are organic, spontaneous networks of cooperation that benefit all actors at any level of society.

Still, there seem to be considerable gaps for those maintaining a steady eye on social justice. Market failures occur. Poverty cannot be solved by markets alone; there will be uninsured, addicts, children born in conditions difficult to escape from. There are many elegant arguments for why these problems can often be traced to government intervention, or why private mechanisms will naturally, of their own accord, help those at the margins that don't succeed. But this remains an obscure gray region in the typical libertarian orthodoxy, and a glaring chasm to leftists. Realizing that markets work doesn't mean we suddenly have a free society in which there are no losers. There are people on the bottom, people suffering at this very moment who need help. There is a tendency among libertarians who have gone through a bleeding heart progressive phase to be eviscerated by the libertarian vision, just as a Rapture Christian sees no need to improve the world when the eschaton is just around the corner. There is a pervasive tendency to armchair activism. Those suffering under the current system want to better themselves before they care to understand the economic causes of poverty. That in the long run people will be better off with less government does not relieve present suffering and doesn't, in itself, provide a vision of what will replace the safety net.

Though there are some Randroids libertarians who won't admit it, humans are responsible for one another. If someone can't afford to feed their children, it affects me. If someone can't afford to pay for a vital medical operation, it affects me. No man is an island. Rare is the individual whose utopia is an egoistic society. What is the state of the libertarian movement when government is growing by leaps and bounds, wars are being fought and new ones being dreamed up, local governments are mimicking national models and a police state is cropping up like an alien species in our heartland. There's a lot of cause to be pessimistic about the supposed victories of the ideological dialectic. On the other hand, the surprising grassroots support for Ron Paul suggests that there may yet be a political revolution. But deep down most libertarians know this can't be counted on. Voters are irrational and political activism is rarely efficacious. Centralized government has an incredible inertia and dark gravity. It's easier to imagine Ron Paul being assassinated than the IRS, CIA and most government departments being shut down. It's much more likely that Ron Paul will soon be forgotten, like Barry Goldwater was forgotten and many more before him.

Instead of waiting for people to "wake up", it is time to realize it will not happen. There will not be an ideological revolution divorced from practical considerations. Economics is not called the dismal science for nothing; political theorizing and arcane moral deontologies don't resonate with the masses. People want to see local, tangible improvement in their lives and in the lives of others. What is needed is a practical revolution. If people have not tasted a voluntary society for themselves, how can they hunger for it?

A free society must grow from the ground up. Rather than an ideological crusade, a practical, concrete activism needs to be nurtured. This means working in soup kitchens and homeless shelters, creating voluntary mutual aid networks, supporting charter school movements locally, delivering groceries to poor families, cleaning up the dirty parts of the city. This means getting your hands dirty and giving practical freedom to other people. Sometimes it may mean going to a city council meeting or supporting a political cause or even voting in local elections. It will mean working with leftists, the religious right and people of various ideologies on voluntary solutions to tangible problems. The hell of government interference will only be rejected when there is at least a practical, malleable purgatory available as a substitute.

Addendum: In response to a commentator, this site has not been hacked. The point is not that the socialist critique of the free market model is correct per se, nor that families prove socialism could work on a large scale. My overall suggestion is that not only is ecumenicism theoretically possible between libertarians and leftists, but that it is practically possible right now. Many socialist visions do not strictly contradict a free market society and in fact are assumed by most libertarians as necessary organizational models on local levels to "fill the gaps" where markets are not desirable or practicable. The challenge then, is to acknowledge that there are gaps right now that need attention by volunteers, especially those conscious that it is better to create a voluntary, responsive system than to depend on government. There are a great many practical steps toward a free society that might be taken independent of the current level of government interference, including the most simple volunteering and working for the poor on local levels. This is work that needs to be done in a libertarian society as much as the current one and should be considered by the libertarian as a pure free market activity.

Language Bits

1) I've been re-reading old detective novels from a box I just unearthed. The characters are always "washing down" food with a pint or a glass of wine. What's this about? Have their digestive systems stopped working? My food goes down fine on its own, without any need for "washing."

2) One of the phrases of British English I least like is "tuck into," as in, "He tucked into his fish and chips." I tuck babies into their blankets; I never have tucked myself into my food. It makes me shiver every time I read it.

3) In Brooklyn, new Indian restaurants with absolutely standard fare still boast that they offer "exotic Indian foods." Dear owners: Thirty years ago, paratha, lamb korma, and chicken vindaloo may have been "exotic," but today they are about as exotic as spaghetti marinara.

4) Another tired blog cliche: "I'm just asking..." Having seen this for like the 7000th time, I'm pretty sick of it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"A Dialog About a Dialog"

A: Absorbed in our discussion of immortality, we had let night fall without lighting the lamp, and we couldn't see each other's faces. With an offhandedness or gentleness more convincing than passion would have been, Macedonio Fernandez' voice said once more that the soul is immortal. He assured me that the death of the body is altogether insignificant, and that dying has to be the most unimportant thing that can happen to a man. I was playing with Macedonio's pocketknife, opening and closing it. A nearby accordion was infinitely dispatching La Comparsita, that dismaying trifle that so many people like because it's been misrepresented to them as being old. . . . I suggested to Macedonio that we kill ourselves, so we might have our discussion without all that racket.
Z: (mockingly) But I suspect that at the last moment you reconsidered.
A: (now deep in mysticism) Quite frankly, I don't remember whether we committed suicide that night or not.

-Jorge Luis Borges

What fearful asymmetry could mine eye unframe?

"I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature. The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside. Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more fooled by it than they were the previous day. It is becoming unbearable. I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting."


Nassim Taleb
, still fooled by randomness.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Science: Advancing by Hardcore Materialism for Over 400 Years!

One of my favorite history of science stories was told to me by John Milton -- no, not that John Milton, this one, who taught me history of science at King's College -- about Kepler. One of the reasons Kepler was happy to find his elliptical orbits for the planets was that in the system of both Copernicus and Ptolemy, the planets, to match observations, actually had to circle not the sun, but an empty point in space somewhat near the sun. When Kepler was able to put the sun at one of the focal points of a planet's elliptical orbit, he was quite pleased, for how, he asked, were the angelic intelligences steering the planets through space supposed to orient themselves around an empty point?

I Did Not Know That!

One-quarter of the mammal species in the world are a type of bat.

The (Il)logic of Harry Potter

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Harry Potter books and movies. But I was watching one with my daughter last night, and I was struck once again by the fact that J.K. Rowling just didn't seem to bother working out any sort of logic to the magic in the books. Yes, we have to suspend disbelief and grant that magic and witchcraft exist in the fictional world, but having granted that, we should then find a logical consistency in how they operate there.

However, in Harry Potter, what the heck is up with this "magic training"? The kids go to a class, and the teacher tells them to say "gaudiamus igitur," "vini, vidi, vici," or some such phrase, and... well, that's it! There seems to be nothing else to these spells at all. And yet there must be, because Ron Weasely's spells always go wrong. But with the single exception of the "Patronus," I've never seen any hint as to what the other thing could be, nor seen any student getting instruction as to how their spell went wrong. What are the teachers even there for?

And just what do wizards have power over? You see a spoon stirring a pot of food by itself at the weasley's, or a broom sweeping up without anyone there, and it seems as though they might have complete power over any physical object. And yet they write with pens, grab the quidditch ball by hand, and ride an ordinary train to Hogwarts. Why? Is it just too boring to do everything by magic? Is there some reason they can control brooms and not pens? Maybe in Rowling's mind this all makes sense, but I've never seen any explanation.

And it irks me, because I hate to see an enjoyable series constantly marred by what appears to be pure sloppiness.

Does Cutting Out the Private Sector Middleman Cut Costs?

I say no.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

And All She Wants to Do Is Dance (and Foment a Revolution)

Yet another post in my series on song lyrics... I have nothing too profound this time, except to ask: Have you ever listened carefully to this Don Henley song?!?

TB Case

Great article by Bob "Too Lazy to Blog It Himself" Murphy.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

More Game Theory

Here's what I mean: A game theorist can set up a game and say "If a real situation exactly duplicates this game, and a fully rational actor in the situation is concerned solely with monetary [for instance] payoffs, then he will employ this strategy." The theory itself cannot say how closely any real world situation does match its structure, nor that an actor in the situation should be concerned only with what the game describes as the payoffs. For example, we sometimes hear something like, "While fully rational actors would bet this way at Game X, real humans are less than fully rational and, through their [love of risk / fear of loss /etc.] bet differently. But why is it "irrational" not to seek solely the reward that the game theorist has stipulated, and instead seek, say, the thrill of risk taking? Other than the theorist having mistaken his model for reality, there is no reason at all.

David Bowie Lost in Space

Monday, June 18, 2007

Stay!

My daughter was telling our dog "Stay!" as she walked past me tonight. I jokingly said, "I'm staying, I swear I'm staying."

It occurred to me that my joke hints at the gulf between animals and people: Our dog is perfectly capable of getting the idea of "Stay!" but I have never heard of any animal that could grasp the concept of "promising to stay."

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tough Rules

At DiMattina Playground in Brooklyn, there are rules posted for the baseball field, including:

"3) Only players on the field.
4) Only coaches on the field."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Assumptions in Science

Over at Unqualified Offerings, Thoreau writes:
"In a continuing effort to highlight the way that even the most fundamental assumptions are subject to experimental testing in science..."

This, of course, logically cannot be the case. How, for instance, could the fundamental assumption that experimental testing is a good way to get at the truth be tested experimentally without logical circularity? Or the idea that their is some sort of quantitatively stable relationship between a sequence of measurements? (You have to simply assume this, or all of your measurements are merely random pokes in the dark that prove nothing.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Singing in the Shower

When professional vocalists do this, do they sound much better than normal? (BTW a voice coach told me that you really do sing better in the shower. He said the acoustics allow you to get excellent feedback and adjust.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

How We Does Race Relations in Brooklyn

I went to visit my friend Tommy at Cody's up on Court St. I told him I'd be running a tab, because I planned to skip out on the bill when I was done.

He said, "You know how fast I can run, don't you?" (He did track in college, so I'd guess pretty fast.)

I replied, "I'm just going to wait for you to go to the bathroom."

Tommy pointed to the black guy next to me at the bar: "My friend Jeff here will watch you while I'm gone."

The black guy looked at me and said, "Yeah, and I can run faster than you with a widescreen plasma TV and a stereo on my back."

Back for Your Reading Pleasure

The Libertarian Alliance posts my history of political thought talk, which I posted here a while back -- but their version has nice graphics!

The Meaning of Game Theory

This article got me thinking about game theory a bit. In particular, when the author writes, "Game theory predicts that the Nash equilibrium will occur when the Traveler's Dilemma is played rationally," he is guilty of a common mistake.

I know many game theorists think game theory should model human behaviour, but they are mistaken. Game theory is a formal system, an abstraction from real decisions in which many factors other than those specified in the game come into play. It is interesting, and can offer some insight into real decisions, but to take it to predict anything about them, or, even worse, that it can stand as a normative judge of a decision's "rationality" or "irrationality, are severe mistakes. Saying "a Nash equilibrium is the rational result in game X" says no more than "If you play this game according to the rules I stipulate, then you will play it according to those rules." There is no reason whatsoever that it is "irrational" for someone facing a real situation like the one described in the article to take into account factors not specified in the abstract definition of the game.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ahistorical Physics

I recently corresponded with a physicist who had posted, on his web site, what he saw as two invalid reasons for accepting a scientific theory (I paraphrase):

1) My theory is more beautiful than the accepted one.
His response? "Take it to an art dealer."
2) My theory is more philosophically sound.
Then you should "Take it to church."

I pointed out to him that these two reasons were, until the work of Kepler, the only two reasons for accepting Copernican astronomy. (See, for instance, The Copernican Revolution by Kuhn (who was a trained physicist) or Against Method by Feyerabend, also trained in physics.) Copernican astronomy was simply no better than Ptolemaic astronomy at making predictions, and significantly worse in terms of agreeing with the main body of contemporary physics.

He finally responded to me that, in evaluating why Copernican astronomy was accepted by early adopters, such as Rheticus, Maestlin, Kepler, and Galileo, I should "look to the physics." By this, of course, he meant the Newtonian physics that explained planets rotating around a central sun. Thus, he claimed that these men became Copernicans due to the conformity of Copernicanism with a physics lying 100 years in their future! In fact, Newtonian physics developed in response to Copernicanism, which made no sense at all in terms of the physics of the time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Collingwood on Materialism

"Materialism as the heir of Reiassance pantheism continued to live and thrive not only in the seventeenth century but throughout the eighteenth and even the nineteenth centuries, until it was finally destroyed by the new theory of matter which grew up in the late nineteenth century. To the very end it retained the impress of its pantheistic origin. This appears in the outspoken religious character of its attitude towards matter which it postulates as the only reality. It denies God, but only because it transferred the attributes of God to matter, and being the offspring of a monotheistic tradition thinks one God quite enough. The phenomenon is so uniform that in a general way we can recognize a materialist author by his habit of using the traditional forms of Christian piety in speaking about the material world. On occasion he will even pray to it....

"Scientifically speaking, on the other hand, materialism was from first to last an aspiration rather than an achievement. Its God was always a miracle-working God whose ways were past our finding out.... Failing experimental confirmation in the laboratory... that the brain secretes thought in exactly the same way in which the gall bladder secretes gall, might pass as a dogma of religion, but scientifically considered was simple bluff."

-- R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature

Worst Sentence Ever Candidate

"Kettle ponds are sites where blocks of ice broke off from the ice sheet and were buried as meltwater carrying debris built up plains of outwash material around and over them."

-- National Audobon Society Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic

Right around the word "debris" I get totally lost.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Politicizing Abortion

My stance on abortion wavers just about every day. I seriously don't think the government should get involved, but I also get the creeps when I think about growing fetuses getting sucked out of a womb. I have some sympathy for all sides, basically. Then there are the people who don't get a drop of my sympathy. The people who bomb abortion clinics, for instance. The officials in China who force women to take pregnancy tests and then have abortions. Those are the obvious people to hate in this debate. There's a group with more insidious methods, however. These people will take any opportunity to make abortion a political issue, no matter what the circumstances, and they twist language to make their point. Here's the story that outraged me today. A woman had a miscarriage 15-20 weeks into her pregnancy, and she preserved the fetus in her freezer. She's been charged with concealing the death of a child and abuse of a corpse (the latter charge was dropped). Now, what's wrong with the previous sentence? Death of a child, are you kidding me? She had a MISCARRIAGE! Twenty to thirty percent of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage! I'm finally beginning to understand why the prochoice people get so upset when the prolife people insist on calling blastocysts babies. Abortion has become so sensitive that when a pregnancy naturally ends before a full-term, live birth, it's seen as a criminal thing, and this poor woman is actually being held in prison by serious charges. Since when do you have to go to the hospital when you're sick? Why does the government need to be so intimately involved with womens' reproductive health? Had this woman gone to the hospital and had/completed the miscarriage there, she wouldn't have been charged with anything. (The medical examiner found that the fetus died in utero of natural causes.)

Feminists constantly say that prolifers ignore the health and plight of a woman, and talk about fetal rights in a vaccuum, as if the mother doesn't exist. They also say that prolifers want to make sure that women are required to have babies as a result of sex, and deserve to be hurt for their slutty decisions. I have to say that while I can certainly see mysogynist tones in what the kookiest right-wingers have to say about abortion, I kinda thought that it was a characterization of the most out-there lunatics. This case makes me think they're more right-on about the general prolife populace than I would have believed before. My heart goes out to this young woman. Imagine the terror of going into labor at 20 weeks, and the horror of seeing your dead, half-formed fetus. As weird and gross as it sounds, I genuinely sympathize with her for wanting to keep the body close. If she had gone to a hospital, this corpse would have been disposed of without ceremony.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

People's Intelligence Damaged...

by exposure to total horseshit studies.

"However, she admitted the research team had no specific data on which chemicals the meat contained, and conceded other possible causes, such as exposure to pesticides, or lifestyle factors could not be ruled out."

In other words, they controlled for absolutely nothing, and yet expect us to take their study seriously.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cute Law Facts

Apparently, it was a crime in ancient Rome to "use magic to move crops." (And there were prosecutions for this crime.) So if you had a spell that could make your wheat walk to the next field, best not to use it.

Also, the wife of a patrician consul was prosecuted because she had said, "I wish the plebs were all dead." I don't think she had thought things through: first of all, who would she be patrician in relation to if the plebs all died? And, secondly, who would do her manual labor?

Passing Bidden

Walking down Rt. 6 near my house, I saw a sign reading "Passing Bidden." I looked closer, and realized the sign had originally read "Trespassing Forbidden," but the first few letters of each word had been folded up.

Unintended consequences!