Saturday, October 30, 2010

NPR and Juan Williams

Juan Williams' losing his job, like the Cordoba House proposal, would be a non-story, except for the reaction it provoked. The right was outraged, and even the moderate consensus seemed to be that NPR shot itself in the foot by firing Williams. While I realize that the issue has pretty much lost its currency, I offer two comments which swim against the tide.

Andrew Sullivan's Juan Williams: Busted

Ta-Nehisi Coates' The 'High-Tech Lynching' of Juan Williams (best line: Prejudice is not wrong because it is uncivil, impolite or unsympathetic. It is wrong because it is weak thinking.)

For Philosophy Lovers Only, Part II

This started out as a comment to Jim’s entry "For Philosophy Lovers Only" in which he links to Andrew Sullivan’s “The Geist Of Credit Default Swaps,” which in turn links to J.M. Bernstein’s “Hegel on Wall Street” in the New York Times. But the comment got away from me and ended up being a new entry.

I recommend going back and reading the entire Bernstein piece. It’s a pretty unusual and thoughtful read, applying principles from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit to banking regulation. Hegel rarely makes his way into mainstream media these days and, as a die-hard philosophy major, I feel compelled to encourage this sort of thing at every opportunity.

In the interest of complete disclosure, let me say that I took a course in college on the Phenomenology of Spirit. As proof of this, I still have the book, all 800 plus pages of it. And, I remember this much from the course: I understood exactly none of it. I found the book to be absolutely impenetrable. In my defense, some of it had to do with a rather mediocre professor. The New York Times article, while still difficult, left me with perhaps a better understanding of Hegel than my entire course.

I liked what Bernstein had to say about the double failure of the knight of virtue and the purely self-interested individualist. Both err because they focus on motive rather than the action and its consequences. The knight of virtue seeks only to have a pure motive and, consequently, accomplishes little in this complex world where almost any serious achievement requires innumerable compromises with principle. The self-interested individualist simply doesn’t know where his interests lie.

The focus on motive by so many today puzzles me. I have conservative friends who object to government welfare programs because they claim these programs rob ordinary people of opportunities to be virtuous. If you think about this contention for more than just a few seconds, you begin to reel at its level of insensitivity and bizarre self-absorption. It argues that it’s better to have poor people suffer than to have the well-off lose any opportunity to feel good about their own virtue. (Leave aside the fact that any even a slight working knowledge of the world would tell you that, no matter how many safety nets the government casts, people will always have needs and problems – which will present many opportunities for acts of virtue. All the social security benefits in the world won’t eliminate the need or opportunity for you to call your mother. )

The other troubling conservative argument concerning motive I hear is that we in this country are morally superior to our enemies, particularly al-Qaeda – despite inflicting a civilian death toll in Iraq of some 100 to 600 thousand (depending on which estimate you buy into) compared to the 3000 American terrorist victims – because we have purer motives. Bin Laden targeted civilians, the argument goes, but for us, civilians were just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage to a higher “military” purpose (which we would have avoided if possible). Again, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the danger in that sort of thinking. Hitler no doubt believed that he had pure motives for the extermination camps. Mao and Pol Pot similarly thought they were pursuing a higher purpose. I just hope to God that King Leopold of Belgium had no similar delusion about his enslaving, beating, mutilating and eventually killing half the population of the Congo just to make a few francs in the rubber business. I think we are on safer moral ground by judging actions by their effect rather than the motivation (which are pretty elusive in any event).

The self-interested individualist simply suffers from myopia. When people complain about big government always getting in the way of their ability to pursue their own happiness, I like to suggest that they go try to make money someplace where there is no government around and see how well that works out. We all know how prosperous things are in Somalia where entrepreneurs don’t have to contend with a killjoy central government bringing everybody down.

A rule of laws and regulations makes things predictable. Without that predictability, it is not possible to pursue your self interest. You need to know, for example, that the terms of a contract will be followed, or you’ll get compensated for your trouble. You can’t even get to your next business meeting without a whole bunch of roads, traffic signals, traffic laws and a law enforcement system which allows traffic to flow. This, I think was the point of Sir Thomas Moore’s line in a Man for All Seasons: “This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” Even generous government benefits to the down-and-out rebound to help the individualist pursue his own self-interest. An educated and employed populace is much less likely to be stealing inventory from your warehouse or robbing your banks.

Finally, general prosperity creates customers. It you’re really interested in pursuing your own self-interest, you’ll want to help in the effort to raise the income levels of everyone not only in your own country but the world. The better off others are, the more opportunity there is to sell your own product.

Sure, we can disagree about what regulations are good and bad, and we can argue over which government programs work and which don’t. But the argument put forth by everyone from Milton Friedman to the tea party people that less government is always and everywhere better just goes to show that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Friday, October 29, 2010

John Stewart, Lead Singer for the Kingston Trio (sort of) cont'd

I hear is performing at the Mall in DC this weekend. In the off change that the rest of the group shows up (those who are still alive), I'll be there. If you happen to be a Kinsgston Trio fan too and you will be there, let me know, perhaps we can meet.

cider pressing

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Our Last Chance

When I was growing up in the 60’s, it seemed that our generation – the Baby Boom – was poised to usher America into a new era. Abbey Hoffman’s 1989 speech at Vanderbilt University captured the sense at the time:

In the nineteen-sixties, apartheid was driven out of America. Legal segregation— Jim Crow — ended. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segregation. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war that people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens. … [T]he big battles that were won in that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong – and we were right!

All this was accomplished and we were still under 30. Somehow, though, in one of those cruel twists of fate, the promise was never kept. The Boomers, instead, grew up to become the “Me Generation” – self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing. According to one narrative, spun out in Michael Kinsley’s recent article in the October issue of The Atlantic, “The Least We Can Do”:

The Boomers, were “bred in at least modest comfort,” as the Port Huron Statement of 1962, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, startlingly concedes. They ducked the challenge of Vietnam—so much smaller than the military challenge their parents so triumphantly met. They made alienation fashionable and turned self-indulgence (sex, drugs, rock and roll, cappuccino makers, real estate, and so on) into a religion. Their initial suspicion of the Pentagon and two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, spread like kudzu into a general cynicism about all established institutions (Congress, churches, the media, you name it). This reflexive and crippling cynicism is now shared across the political spectrum. The Boomers ran up huge public and private debts, whose consequences are just beginning to play out. In the world that Boomers will pass along to their children, America is widely held in contempt, prosperity looks to more and more like a mirage, and things are generally going to hell.
OK, so, now it turns out that tea party cynicism and everything else wrong today had its roots in Boomer attitudes. Whether or not this account is fair, it’s hard to deny that we haven’t exactly set the world on fire. We feel like a failed generation because, as Kinsley notes, we “had hopes. [We] had an agenda.” We believed that we represented a new chapter in American history. And, yet, the “Great Society” that we envisioned remains more elusive than ever. Instead, our society is growing poorer with greater inequity. Wages have been stagnant or declining for 30 years. There is more income inequality now that at any time since the Roaring 20’s. And the quality of our health care ranks at the bottom of that of the industrialized nations.

As Kinsley sets forth in his article, he wants us, now at this late hour, to redeem ourselves – to do some great deed that will gain us some favorable mention in the history books. He wants to get the band back together for one last, spectacular show.

So, what to do? Kinsley notes that Time’s Joe Kline raised the same question, but came up with this ludicrous answer: a campaign to legalize marijuana. As Kinsley says, "[a]s the Boomers’ parting gift to the nation, it’s like giving your mom a baseball mitt for her birthday.” Kinsley also rejects the suggestion that our parting gift be a universal national-service program. It’s a bad idea as of a matter of policy, says Kinsley, and places the sacrificial act, not on the Boomers, but on their grandchildren.

So, here’s Kinsley’s suggestion: Pay back the money we borrowed; in other words, eliminate government debt – state, local and national – and give future generations a new start. Kinsley estimates this amounts to a mere $14 trillion. Mostly, he wants to accomplish this by across-the-board estate taxes.

It seems worthy enough, and is something that is both measurable and achievable. And it has the symmetry of letting the penalty fit the crime.

But, I’m wondering if we might leave a better legacy, and I have two suggestions. One, we might secure real universal health care for future generations. That means we provide coverage for every last American citizen and, while we’re at it, we get control over spiraling costs. We’ve started the process. Let us, the Boomers, commit ourselves to finishing the project before we float out into the ether.

The second is a bit amorphous, I concede. But here it is: reverse the income disparity trend. In 1979, the lowest two quintiles (lowest 40%) of wage earners averaged $17,400. By 2007, the bottom two quintiles made an average of $20,500. That’s an increase of 18%. In 1979, the top one percent of wage earners averaged $167,500. By 2007, the top 1% made $352,000. That’s an increase of 110%. I confess that I don’t have much of an idea of what to do about this. One thing to do, I suppose, is to unflatten the income tax rates. After that, it’s not too clear. But, there must be some clever Boomers out there with ideas.

Anyway, I’m happy to throw open the blog lines. Anyone have other suggestions for how Boomers might atone for their many sins? The soul of a generation is at risk.

Last, a word from Tennyson:

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods

Monday, October 25, 2010

Karen Armstrong Weighs In on 'Ground Zero Mosque' Debate

Here's the quote recited by Armstrong:
Do not praise your own faith exclusively so that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will miss the whole truth of the matter. God, the omniscient and the omnipresent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says in the Koran, wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah. Everybody praises what he knows. His God is his own creature, and in praising it, he praises himself. Which he would not do if he were just, for his dislike is based on ignorance.
Ibn Arabi, twelfth-thirteenth century Sufi mystic

To which we might add:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Anne Lamott

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Against the Odds

We're all aware at some level that "The universe is big." Our brains, however, are not quite made to easily grasp its sheer magnitude. So, science writers attempt to conceptualize it by way of analogy: "The universe is so big that the number of stars is 10 times the number of grains of sand in all the world's beaches and deserts." Describing the universe in more human-relatable terms allows us to suddenly switch from a vague sense of "big" to absolutely breath-taking.

I recently came across a collection of quotes attempting to quantify another statistical wonder, the towering odds against existence that everyone now reading this has overcome. In Hitch 22, Hitchens uses this Richard Dawkins quote to preface his prologue:

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara [I guess "grains of sand" is science's cliche for comprehending large numbers -jh] Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Then, a few days later, I came across a piece by Dick Cavett in the New York Times Opinionator blog. He describes a rather unique annual Hollywood party in which actors, writers, professors, scientists, etc. all gather to give lectures, exchange ideas, and drink. (I wanted to attend, but learned it cost a cool 1000 bucks. It's basically a smaller version of TED, I guess). Cavett writes about a lecture he attends:

He pointed out that we each have millions of ancestors and that, at conception, your sex is determined randomly. If any single one of that galaxy of ancestors had chanced to have a different sex, you would not be here to read this. (Presumably, someone else would. Unless of course one of my millions of ancestors met with a mishap.)

Keep that word “galaxy” in mind. Do we have more “ancestors” than there are atoms in several galaxies? Just how many of your forebears were there, that the wrong gender accident could have happened to, thereby snuffing any chance of your existence? Brace yourself.

Alvarez led us gently to the wowing fact: An imaginary space ship travels through our galaxy. Each of the millions of heavenly bodies in our galaxy represents one ancestor. But it gets better. (Or worse.)

The ship leaves our galaxy and journeys through the next. And the next.

And …

Even typing this next bit makes me glad I’m sitting down. Not only does each planet, star, Milky Way and what-have-you in every galaxy represent numerically a member of your family tree, so does each atom in all those galaxies. Every one representing a chance for each of us not to exist.

Had any one of those parents died before maturing, or been sterile, or not met the wife by chance in handing her a dropped glove, or shared a woolly mammoth bone with her on a date leading to bed, or been carried off in the plague or killed by some forerunner of a New York bicycle rider on the sidewalk . . . the mind boggles. (Not to mention the near-infinite number of people who might have been born down through the end of time but weren’t — because your particular chain went on unbroken.)

Can any mind this side of Einstein’s accommodate this thought?

How many ancestors, going back millions and millions of years — each of whose specific wiggly was in each case the only one among millions that got through to make you . . . how many of those ancestors are there?
It is in these realizations that I consistently discover the numinous and awe-inspiring. Another quote from a Sullivan reader, apropos to autumn:

The weather is changing here … big breezes at sundown blow away the clouds and humidity, leaving a fresh feeling to the air on your skin … and it lasts until dawn, when it's a joy just to be able to walk outside … and so I'm outside a lot, daylight and dark … and that's where I think about all this: What are the chances that my specific collection of atoms should have been allowed to coalesce into a being constructed not only to support thought but also self-awareness? A being capable of apprehending the beauty all around and concluding that the apprehending of it is probably the point of being here at all … I think if you are religious in the general sense, you probably perceive this as a form of worship -- the apprehension of and thankfulness for all that beauty which is experienced as a divine gift … I may not call it that, but I think I appreciate it in much the same way: through sheer wonder and gratitude.
Lastly, an excerpt from Alan Moore's Watchmen:

The Darkness of Mere Being

Thermodynamic Miracles... Events with odds against so astronomical they're effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold. I long to observe such a thing.

And yet, in each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son, that exact daughter...

Until your mother loves a man, she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged.

To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold, that is the crowning unlikelihood.

The thermodynamic miracle.

Come... dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.

Dry your eyes... and let's go home.

Happiness remains elusive (or not)

The social sciences continue to have difficulty in coming up with non-trivial laws or theories that can last as long as those of the more true sciences. (See the current Noble prize in economics as an example of a trivial theory.) Despite my misgivings, there is no shortage of social science studies. Happiness is a favorite topic. We have talked before about happiness (but I can't find the posts to reference). Here is a study that contradicts recent studies which suggest that we are condemned to tread the same level of happiness throughout our lives.

Because of the almost infinite variables present when dealing with humans, social science studies, in my mind, tend to be fairly useless. In fact I would almost say that the only studies which are useful are one's (like this one) which conclude that humans can make a difference in their lives.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Curse of the Consol Energy Center

Is it the ghost of the Civic Arena past, the ghost of Sergei Gonchar (and/or Mark Eaton) present, or the ghosts of Consolidated Coal miners future? Predict how long until the curse is broken and Pittsburgh can win in the new arena. I'm guessing it can't be 18 years.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Taboo

Great little speech by Steven Pinker about implicit social restrictions on academic inquiry, specifically w/r/t "taboo" subjects. He basically argues that we have a tendency to assign moral weight to questions that should be purely intellectual in nature:

Today, I think it is the scientific study of the mind that people tend to blend with deep moral issues. I’ll give you just a few examples of questions that have been raised by people in the field of psychology that have gotten them into trouble because even though they, in theory, are purely intellectual questions, people believe that they shake the foundations of morality. Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? Do women, on average, have a different average aptitude in mathematical reasoning than men? Are Ashkenazi Jews on average smarter than Gentiles because their ancestors had been selected for the shrewdness needed in money lending? Is morality just a gadget that evolution installed in our brains with no inherent reality? Are religious beliefs like parasites, which colonize the minds of believers? Is the average intelligence of Western nations falling because duller people are having more children than smarter people?

Do men have an innate tendency to rape? Do women who give birth under difficult circumstances have an innate tendency to abandon or even kill their newborns?...

Why did the hairs on the back of our neck stand up when we entertain purely intellectual research questions such as these?

It brings up a phenomenon called the Psychology of Taboo, the sensation that certain ideas are evil to think. Quite apart from the fact, of course, that certain actions are evil to commit, but can it be sinful even to think a thought?

Finally got around to ordering Pinker's book "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature".

Social Science for the win, Alex

Carnegie Mellon notches its 8th Nobel in economics, as reported in today's Post Gazette:

"Dr. Mortensen's work analyzes the role of individual decision-making in unemployment and job search. He said yesterday in a conference call from Denmark that his models show that more generous unemployment benefits can result in higher unemployment and longer search times."

I think everyone can share in this prize. Who knew you didn't have to develop graphene or in-vitro fertilization to win?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ellen in Prague

Ellen partying with Tartan Army -- which arrived en masse in Prague to cheer on the Scottish team against the Czech Republic in a qualifier for the European cup. The Czechs won, but the Scotts are more fun.

For Philosophy Lovers Only

Some of the recent discussions on this blog have rekindled my love of philosophy. So, I was delighted to find two separate and distinct philosophical discussions on The Daily Dish.

Could An Omnipotent Being Prove It requires a couple of clicks (Click "ponders the question" from the Sanchez site to get the original question and answer) and, more importantly, reading (as far as you dare) the comments.

The Geist of Credit Default Swaps is more practical (and meaningful), if not more fun.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The King of Surf Guitar plays Misirlou

On NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, I heard an interview with Dick Dale, the King of Surf Guitar (who has just released a new CD). Of course, at one point, the discussion turned to the song Misirlou, a little tune with which you Pulp Fiction groupies may be familiar. Many nations claim Misirlou as their own, including the Greeks, the Turks and the Jews. But according to Dale, who is Lebanese, the song is Arabic. He learned it from his uncles playing it on the Oud. The word Misirlou, though Greek, has its origins in Arabic: مصر, Miṣr, meaning "Egypt." The Greek word Misirlou refers specifically to a Muslim Egyptian woman (as opposed to a Christian Egyptiotissa). Apparently, the song is about a forbidden love between a Muslim and a Christian.

My black-eyed, my wild Misirlou,
My life changes with one kiss
Ah, ya habibi, one little kiss, ah
From your sweet little lips, ah.

In any event, the song's come a long way.

By the way, this guy does all right for a 70 year old undegoing cancer treatment.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Monday Blues

These mash-up videos have been going around the blogosphere for months now.  I was saving this one for a cold rainy Monday to cheer everyone up (especially after the Steelers loss) because it is so awesomely edited.

For those Harvey's allergic to pop culture here is yours-