December 29, 2003

No more Orwell-citing!

Posted by Curt at 07:45 PM in Language | permalink | comment

Much as I would like to flog our ceaseless linguistic debates with yet more over-citation of Orwell, like this man or this one, I just don’t have the heart for it anymore. No one could object to management-speak and bureaucratic-speak more than I, but I simply cannot muster the outrage that some of these pedants can at the fact that words do not have absolutely fixed, established and unchanging meanings. Even Orwell, I think, was guilty of this to a certain extent in his ad hominem attacks on those who in his view misused or abused language. He treated these as moral crimes, deceptions either initiated or perpetuated to the greater ignorance of everyone. But does it not bother these mandarins that they write exactly in the manner of those whom they criticize? Imagine, an essay that attacks the spurious collectivism of the word “we” while using it in just such a spurious manner at least 15 times as well as an unspecificied number of “us“‘s and contractions thereof (my apologies to Zamyatin). It shan’t even concern me to point out how necessary are dynamism and change to the continued existence of language, because one can swiftly perceive a greater void opening underneath one’s feet: no language is “authentic,” no word has an absolute correspondence with anything. It is all symbols and mirrors: the notion that sounds actually corresponded physically to objects in the world is a long-dead superstition. What do these people expect to do? Establish a correspondence-table between word and concept, while constantly having recourse to the very same fluttering sounds that they are trying to nail down? It is all an illusion, in any case. Better to become aware of the conditional and incomplete nature of all communication, and be grateful that we can reach even so far beyond ourselves.

The revolution will hopefully be televised

Posted by Curt at 05:58 PM in Economics | permalink | comment

If you haven’t already, check out this interview with Johan Norberg, who recently published “In Defense of Global Capitalism.” There are no new arguments in refutation of anti-globalization activists here, but Norberg seems to be exceptionally talented at articulating them in a way that many economists seem unable to do. Because of his young age (30), and roots in left-wing anarchism, which surely ought to give him credibility with his intellectual opponents, he could be an extremely effective spokesman for an eminently defensible intellectual position, and I hope that his book gets wide attention in America. My favorite quotes from the interview:

“The broader an economy is, the more wealth and income are spread around. The best thing that could happen to the Arab world would be for them to run out of oil. Then they’d have to open up to trade…”

“The most vocal opponents of globalization in poor countries are often funded by critics from wealthier countries…There are the old groups that have always been scared of foreign competition. Corporations that wouldn’t be able to beat competition from other countries are one of them. In the U.S., that includes the textile industry, which has funded a lot of the anti-sweatshop propoganda. You see the same thing when it comes to unions that are trying to educate people against free trade…”

“People are dying because we in the West are unwilling to change and to actually live by the free-market rhetoric we often spout…it’s not merely developing countries that lose out by these policies. We do, too…Agricultural subsidies cost something on the order of $1 billion a day in Western countries.”

I think especially acute in Norberg’s contention that the real economic legacy of colonialism is not a depletion of the resources in former colonies but rather a concentration of political power in areas of high resource wealth, which has the effect of uniting political power and wealth in a marriage as unholy as that between church and state (although the strength of the agricultural and industrial lobbies in the U.S. shows that it is not an entirely foreign affliction). In his view, areas poor in natural resources have generally become much wealthier through diversification.

In general, then, I find Norberg to be a very hopeful voice of reason. That said, I can anticipate several weak points in his argument, which ought to be resolved. I appreciate his understanding that economic modernization cannot proceed without passing through the industrialization-smokestack-sweatshop period, which globalization critics do not seem to recognize in their false dichotomy between the developed world and some mythological bucolic pre-industrial society with fauns scampering through the forest, and I can appreciate the point that many environmentalists seem motivated not just by a desire to preserve nature but by a hatred of modern life, but he does not seem terribly conscious that, while it is true that pre-industrial life included much more starvation, disease and death than our world, there have nevertheless been losses and sacrifices in the “progress” of civilization. It seems to me pretty clear that there is a certain tendency to abstraction and rootlessness in the modern world, which I find to be the most troubling elements of life now, and unless one really engages oneself with these issues deeply, then little work can be made to the enrichment of human life in those areas without the loss of all the other positive aspects of material well-being which have come to be in the last couple of centuries.

On another point, while he calls the WTO “the free-traders’ deal with the devil,” he nevertheless admires its ability to “lock in” nations to international trade. But if the benefits of free trade are so apparent, why would nations need to be compelled to engage in it? In any case, how does the WTO bind the nations to trade freely any more than the UN binds nations to remain peaceful? If their first protectionist urge is to withdraw from international trade, how does excluding them from it put any effective pressure on them? And aside from all that, why should anyone be more interested in engaging nations in free trade at the governmental level rather than at the buyer-and-seller level?

And lastly, while I am aware that Norberg’s expertise lies in economics rather than religion, his argument that Muslims might have an easier time of liberalizing their societies economically than Christians because Muhammed was more supportive and favorable towards trade and the amassing of wealth than Jesus, while intriguing, I find to be a pretty thin and tenuous line of reasoning. It may be somwhat overly univeralist of me to say so, but if the vicissitudes of fortune of the Orient and the West teach us anything, I think it should be that the fortunes of a civilization generally have little to do with its specific religious dogmas, which according to Norberg himself, as an advocate of the separation of religion from public life, is as it should be. And of course anyone following events of the last six months or of the last century will be amused, if sadly, by his contention that “Europe figured out ways of having different beliefs without slaughtering one another.” Anyway, these are all mostly quibbles, although important ones to address in order to bolster a substantially very valid and convincing point of view.

Serial killers revisited

Posted by Curt at 04:36 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | comment

Just one final thougt on the topic of serial killers. I go to school at Kenyon College, about an hour from Columbus, Ohio, where in late November and early December a sniper was targeting cars driving along the interstate. Many of you may not have heard about this, because evidently the officials made a conscious effort, unlike in the case of the D.C. snipers, to limit press coverage of it so as not to allow the sniper to indulge himself in the national media spotlight. In any case, this sparked an interesting conversation with the mother of one of my friends at school, who had recently moved to Columbus from D.C. and hence was understandably perplexed about having to deal with her second sniper scare in two years. I concluded (aside from the obvious point that these “threats” can either be blown up into huge spectacles or entirely quashed by the media) that, although mass murder may be as old as our species, serial killing, the use of murder as a means of self-expression, seems to me to be basically a (principally American) cultural phenomenon. While I don’t doubt the pathology behind it, I take serial killing to be essentially a development of the artistic pshychology, in which the inherent amorality and egotism of the artistic temperament becomes not merely heterogenous with any sort of moral framework but in fact directly opposed to it.

More Traveling

Posted by shonk at 02:01 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

I’m off to Bulgaria in a couple hours. Needless to say, updates will be a sporadic thing, though I’m hoping Curt will pick up the slack I’ll be creating. I’ll try to keep a record of my impressions and take some pictures, to be posted either while I’m there or when I get back, depending on Internet availability. I hope everyone has a happy new year.

Rules for Radicals

Posted by shonk at 03:32 AM in Politics , Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

From Saul Alinsky’s book:

Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those conscious deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then…conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Always remember the first rule of power tactics:

Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

The second rule is: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

The third rule is: Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

The sixth rule is: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.

The seventh rule is: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment…

The eighth rule: Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The ninth rule: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

The tenth rule: The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

The eleventh rule is: If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative…

The twelfth rule: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying “You’re right—we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”

The thirteenth rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

In conflict tactics there are certain rules that the organizer should always regard as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.” By this I mean that in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck….

It should be borne in mind that the target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target….

One of the criteria in picking your target is the target’s vulnerability—where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, the target can always say, “Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?” When you “freeze the target,” you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all others to blame.

Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.

A good example of the last rule is what activists did to John Poindexter last year.

December 27, 2003

And now for a lighter topic-serial killers!

Two new movies have just been released about various aspects of the life of the convicted serial killer Aileen Wournos, who was executed in Florida last year, have just been released. One of them, Monster is a fictionalized Hollywood treatment. The other one, Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer, is a documentary about the filmmaker’s ordeal last year while testifying during Wournos’ final appeal. Not having seen either film, I can’t really comment on them as films, but they do raise yet again the legal, social and yes, perhaps moral issue of the death penalty.

I promise this will be my only contribution to the death-penalty debate, but I was spurred to it by the rather perplexing attitude of at least one reviewer of the films, who at least affected to be flabbergasted that Gov. Jeb Bush would have consented to the execution of this clearly insane woman, who apparently in the documentary spouts off an endless litany of psychotic paranoid theories about her situation shortly before her death. Now nobody could be surprised that a governor who was elected partly on a pro-death penalty platform would allow the insane to be executed. But a very large number of people, not just a single movie reviewer, seem to be very appalled by this. I’m no fan of any of the Bushes, but I don’t entirely understand this furor over the execution of the mentally impaired (as opposed to executing the sane).

I have not formulated a firm attitude towards the death penalty myself, but in my mind the only possible justification for it is as the human equivalent of shooting a mad dog, i.e. as the only possible means of dealing with individuals who are simply too psychotic and dangerous to exist in society. Now I am not sure that this is true of anyone, which is why my feelings on the matter remain ambiguous, but in any case, if is true of any person, their relative sanity is pretty irrelevant. In fact, insanity would actually make it more likely that they could not be dealt with in any way other than execution.

But these people that believe that only the mentally capable that are aware of the moral significance of their actions should be eligible for execution clearly have a different conception of the point of the judicial system than I do. I have no faith in the idea of retributive justice, mainly because, as I have said before, I don’t believe that moral concerns have anything to do with the motives of the judicial system (even if they did, I don’t understand what could give judges or juries moral authority over our lives, but that is a different issue). But I can only conclude that those who support the death penalty only for the sane must have a retributive idea of justice. Why else would the relative moral culpability of the perpetrator make any difference?

Well, I suppose there is one other possibility. Some people may believe that all insane people can be cured through psychotherapy, while those who decide to murder calculatedly are beyond redemption. But this seems to me not only stupid but also perserve. Even putting aside what the actual boundary between sanity and insanity is when one is talking about mass murder, isn’t the very concept of sanity, as opposed to insanity, the idea that the sane person is reasonable, i.e. amenable to reason, capable of being reasoned with, while the insane person is not? So who is more likely to be “cured,” the sane person or the insane? It is apparent what a ludicrous debate this would be, and how filled with hubris. Which brings me back to my original premise: judges and juries have no God-like insight into other people’s psyches, hence they have no right or ability to decide upon relative moral goodness and then dispense punishment accordingly. There are some people in the world, like suicide bombers and those who train and prepare them, who I have difficulty imagining as being anything other than enormous menaces to the world for the duration of their lives. For ones such as them, I can at least see a valid argument being made for their execution, though I would not go so far as affirm it at present. But as for this phony, sniveling pseudo-moral sanctimony, enough with it!

December 26, 2003

Bad Presidents

Posted by shonk at 02:44 AM in Politics | permalink | 2 comments

Do a Google search for “bad presidents”. Go on: I promise it won’t hurt.

Okay, fine, if you’re really that lazy, just check out the Commissar’s work.

December 25, 2003

The Meaning of it All

Posted by shonk at 02:38 AM in Words of Wisdom | permalink | comment

No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.

—Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of it All, “The Uncertainty of Values”.

Death, when all is said and done, is something only for higher mathematicians.

—Thomas Bernhard, Amras.

In logic it is (precisely) the connections that lead to nothing(ness).

—Thomas Bernhard, Amras.

December 22, 2003

Ski Areas

Posted by shonk at 03:41 AM in Economics | permalink | comment

Although I’ve been skiing the last couple of days, I have devoted a couple of moments to serious thought. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the economics of a ski area and whether the ski area model is a good one or not. So far as I understand it, at least in Colorado, most of the ski areas are actually on national forest land leased from the National Park Service. For example, Breckenridge, the area I’ve been skiing at, is in the Arapaho National Forest and is run by Vail Resorts, which also runs Vail, Beaver Creek and Keystone.

Now, what’s interesting to me about the way in which ski areas are operated is not so much the leasing aspect, but rather the way in which ski areas make money. The most obvious way is by selling lift tickets. Now, what’s interesting about a lift ticket is that it is precisely what the name would imply: a ticket which allows one to use the chairlifts on the mountain. What isn’t so obvious is that you are not required to have a lift ticket in order to use the mountain; in fact, you will often see snowshoers climbing up the mountain, presumably without a lift ticket. If one had the desire (and stamina), one could even ski the mountain without buying a lift ticket, so long as one walked back to the top instead of riding the lift. In other words, the ski area does not make money by claiming ownership of a particular piece of land and then charging people to use that land (remember, the ski area does not, technically speaking, even own the land), but rather by charging people for the privilege of using the value they have added to the land (in the form of ski lifts). Hence, in a sense, the ski area is a departure from the landowner/renter relationship that many on the left (along with the Georgists) find fault with.

Okay, so that’s not exactly earth-shaking, nor is it very well-researched. But I thought it was an interesting observation, another example from the multitude of ways in which organizations can be structured and land-use relationships can be realized.

December 20, 2003

Congrats to the Johnnies

Posted by shonk at 05:55 PM in Sports | permalink | comment

I’ve come to realize that I really, really loathe dial-up. Enough that I would rather read a book than get frustrated trying to read all the blogs and online news that I usually do. Since I’ll be stuck with dial-up for the next week or so at the minimum, expect entries to be short or non-existant for that time.

Despite the vagaries of my dial-up connection, I couldn’t help but notice that St. John’s beat Mt. Union in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. For those that aren’t familiar with Division III football, that’s the Division III national championship. What’s notable about this is that aside from the fact that St. John’s coach, John Gagliardi, has been coaching there for 51 years and just this year broke Eddie Robinson’s record for most all-time wins by a college football coach, Mt. Union has won the last 3 consecutive DIII championships and had won 55 straight and 109 of their last 110 games. In other words, Mt. Union has been the most dominant team in college football for most of the last decade. As Gagliardi said, “Maybe it’s my year.”

December 18, 2003

Random Information, Possibly Useful

Posted by shonk at 01:43 AM in Blogging | permalink | comment

Some of you may have noticed that in my bio and to the right I’ve posted an obfuscated version of my e-mail address. Basically, the obfuscation is a small javascript that, when the link is clicked, causes your mail client to enter my “real” e-mail address in the “To:” line (and displays the proper address in the status bar when you hover over the link), but what actually appears in the HTML that spamcrawlers sift through is an address at Spam Motel.

Why do I mention this? Because just today I received my first e-mail to my Spam Motel account. Needless to say, a piece of spam. Since I have yet to receive anything undesired in my actual account (created at the same time I brought the new domain online — that is, about a week ago), I’ll take this as the initial verification that the obfuscations scheme does indeed work. So if you have your own site but worry about spamcrawlers and don’t like the “joe at joeblog dot com” thing, you might want to check it out.

December 17, 2003

I'm a Travelin' Man

Posted by shonk at 01:55 PM in Ramblings | permalink | 3 comments

Updates may be spotty (or not) the next few weeks. I’m leaving in a few minutes for the airport to fly back to Colorado for Christmas, then I’ll be going to Bulgaria for ten days later in the month. I’ll try to update as often as possible, but we’ll have to see.

December 15, 2003

Nerve Gas or Smokescreen?

Posted by shonk at 08:50 PM in War | permalink | comment

Novinite is reporting that US troops used nerve gas in capturing Saddam. They cite ITAR-TASS, which in turn quotes “Saudi press”. I can’t find any relevant references on, so my question is this: has this report been substantiated anywhere else? Also, can someone who speaks Russian dig up the original story from ITAR-TASS? Their English-language page appears to be down.

Information! Cheap!

Posted by shonk at 08:36 PM in Geek Talk | permalink | comment

In his Washington Post article, Everett Ehrlich synthesizes a simple observation made by Ronald Coase to explain both shrinking firms and the ascendancy of Howard Dean: “The cost of gathering information determines the size of organizations”.

Just as the abundance of cheap information in modern times is cutting the old monoliths like GM down to size, cheap information in the form of blogging and internet campaigns is allowing a relative outsider like Dean to make inroads into (or even “take over”) the monolithic Democratic party.

Though I doubt he intended to make it generalizable, this statement may be more prescient than Ehrlich realizes:

But the Internet doesn’t reinforce the parties — instead, it questions their very rationale. You don’t need a political party to keep the ball rolling — you can have a virtual party do it just as easily.

As I thank Samizdata for the link, I’d like to commend you to a comment made there by “mad dog” (that you, Miles?):

An interesting insight on a developing theme. Reading it on Samizdata saved me all the effort of searching that out myself. Just like the article says…

Indeed, the low transaction costs available online allow small organizations such as myself (heh) to consume and produce information that is more widely available than ever before.

No Recovery for the Internet?

Posted by shonk at 08:21 PM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Along the lines of my post on small victories in the fight to maintain the Internet’s freedom, David McClure says :

The Internet industry, which once led the economy and set new levels of productivity for the nation, is stagnant. The stagnation is due primarily to the incoherent, conflicting and threatening policies of the federal government. …

Efforts to cut away unnecessary regulation and spur investment are hopelessly stalled. …

When [broad-ranging new taxes on the Internet are passed], the magnificent economic machine that is the Internet will slowly grind to a stop, as companies and consumers cut back their use of the Internet, service providers go bankrupt under the crush of tax compliance from 7,200 taxing authorities and the dream of a connected America is quietly killed by state and local tax commissars.

Now, as I’ve said before, I disagree with McClure that the Internet needs anti-spam legislation, but his points on regulation and taxation are dead-on.

Also, as pointed out in the comments to my previous post, some people are making sure the Internet cannot be regulated.

December 14, 2003

Saddam Redux

Posted by shonk at 11:29 PM in War | permalink | 12 comments

Since it’s the news story of the day, I guess I ought to comment on the capture of Saddam Hussein. Before I get to my opinion on the matter, I want to comment on some of the reactions from the anti-war crowd. I’ve been opposed to the war from day 1 (which, I’d like to emphasize, is different from supporting the Ba’ath regime, no matter what war supporters say), but many in the anti-war crowd continually amaze and annoy me with the stupidity of their rhetoric. Which just goes to show that someone can be right for all the wrong reasons.

To start us off, Stop the War’s Andrew Burgin makes the following excellent point in his warning against “triumphalism” :

This is a pathetic, isolated figure. [Hussein] was apprehended in an underground cell that he himself had created with a single air vent, cut off largely from the outside world. … It’s quite incredible that he was built up by the British and Americans as the person who was single-handedly masterminding the resistance.

Of course, the idea that Saddam was singlehandedly masterminding the resistance to US occupation is absurd and anyone who believed it is a fool. The fact is, people generally don’t like it when foreigners with guns decide to set up shop down the street. Taking pages from the Israeli playbook, like erecting razor wire, doesn’t help. But Burgin’s apparent contention that Iraqi resistance is entirely due to heavy-handed imperialism is also naïve. Even if Saddam had no direct communication with the bomb-tossers and gunmen of the last few months, it’s certain that many were inspired by a desire to return to the old status quo which held them in positions of favor. Burgin eradicates any of his good points with this stupidity:

Mr Burgin said it was ridiculous to assume that Saddam would have any specific knowledge of where supposed weapons of mass destruction might have been disposed of.

Admittedly, this paraphrase doesn’t provide context, wherein Burgin may well have added “…because they never existed”, which might well be true. But one would suppose that if Iraq did have any weapons of mass destruction or designs on building same, there is a very good chance that Saddam would indeed know where the evidence was hidden, or at least where to start looking. Megalomaniacs are not well-known for leaving important decisions up to the judgment of their subordinates.

In the article linked above, there is also mention of Human Rights Watch’s apparently contradictory desires that the Iraqi people “have ownership of [Hussein’s] trial” and that “international jurists must be involved in the process.” Huh? How can the “Iraqi people” (or, much more likely, some stylized representation thereof) have ownership of the trial if their judgment is subject to international review?

GNN also weighs in, making the point that this war was ultimately predicated on motives other than the ones publicly stated. No duh, as we used to say in elementary school. However, this too gets undermined by several glaring points. First, I am, as usual, annoyed by the equation of “privatisation” and “capitalism” with the corporatist mercantilism of US foreign policy. The dogma that underlies this misapprehension of reality leads to further absurdities:

Not the invasion of a resource rich country for the “capitalist dream” (The Economist), which was the forced handover of state industries to U.S. companies and the privatisation (or looting, whichever you prefer) of state oil assets and supply chains.

Excuse me? State oil assets? Since when does the stuff in the ground automatically belong to the state? Aside from justifying the notion that the totalitarian Iraqi state had legitimate claim to the oil under the lands which it purported to rule, this logic actually justifies precisely that which it claims to protest. After all, the only entity currently in the area that remotely resembles a state is the US-supported and -controlled provisional government, so it must necessarily own the oil and, therefore, have the right to do with it as it sees fit, right?

The article then moves on to a critique of the tribunals which will, apparently, conduct Saddam’s trial (incidentally, isn’t it so convenient that these tribunals were established just last week?):

So, Saddam (“he was beaten by his father teaching him the power of violence,” BBC News 24) will eventually be killed, by tribunals set up last week. These tribunals have the power of the death penalty although they have no basis in legality. … Their tribunals have no basis under any previous or current system.

I am far from convinced that the tribunals will necessarily serve justice in any meaningful way, but the “no basis in legality” assertion is ridiculous. Usually a “basis in legality” is established by way of tradition and the only legal tradition Iraq has known for the last few decades is the whim of Saddam Hussein. Surely nobody would suggest that the man ought to be tried under the so-called legal system that he created and controlled.

So what was my personal reaction to today’s news. Like Jonathan Wilde, I had mixed emotions:

A bittersweet day for me. A quiet solace pervades my heart at the knowledge that a human butcher has been captured in a most unglorified state for all the world to see, with vermin in his beard and helpnessness in his aura.

Yet, I cannot get past the chagrin I feel at the fact that other individuals like Saddam still walk the Earth in this ‘Enlightened’ Age. Did anyone learn the lessons of the 20th century?

“A quiet solace” is a bit too melodramatic for my taste, but other than that he captures my mood well. I think his further musings are spot-on:

If humanity is ever to one day move beyond tyrants, we have to start questioning some very entrenched givens - ‘common sense’ notions accepted by a large part of the world. Why is it that I know no one bearing remotely close to the level of Saddam’s viciousness in my circle of friends, co-workers, relatives, or other people I have known? Why is it that these barbarians are almost solely found as the head of states or their friends?

Keeping with the depressing theme for a moment more, I don’t want to lose sight of the endgame. As Max Sawicky points out

U.S. political leaders in both parties are quick to laud imaginary progress towards democracy in other countries. It plays to the notion of an inexorable trend based on the shining U.S. example. Actual accountability, given the facts on the ground, is always sloughed off.

The fact is, Saddam the person (as opposed to the image) was unlikely to ever regain even a fraction of the power he had before the war, whether he was actually captured or not. In this sense, the capture is good TV, but strategically almost irrelevant. Except in the very important sense that Mark Gillespie illustrates :

He has the look of a homeless street person, not a leader of a country. Now, I am not saying these things to belittle him. I’m saying these things to illustrate a truth. In truth, this is what EVERY so-called ruler looks like! From the deposed Saddam Husayn, to Lord High Terrorist Killer Bush, himself, they are all the same.

Without their cronies, guns and props, every single so-called ruler is just a tired looking wretch, flitting around from hidey-hole to hidey-hole. In my personal opinion, every politician, every leader and every ruler should be made to look like this. Take away their protection, their nice suits and teleprompters, their campaign staff, their stolen millions in “matching funds” and see what you have. Take away their parties, their caucuses, their Secret Services and their stupid followers and they are nothing.

Preach on, brother. We are, indeed, “fools to give these men power akin to Godhood.”

Small Victories

Posted by shonk at 01:32 AM in Politics | permalink | 3 comments

I admit to being a bit surprised at not having seen much coverage of the rejected proposal to put the Internet under UN control in the blogosphere. Aside from a Samizdata post rightfully excoriating the grandstanding of the despicable Robert Mugabe, I haven’t seen anyone take much note this week’s World Summit on the Information Society.

Part of the preliminary talks leading up to the WSIS, the proposal to put ICANN under the auspices of the UN including giving the US permanent presidency of an ICANN oversight committee) was apparently spearheaded by the likes of China, Egypt, Syria and Vietnam. Ultimately, the US, the EU, Japan and Canada carried the day on this particular issue, preferring to leave to Internet to its relative freedom.

Two points on this: first, the obvious deduction is that China, Vietnam, et al want the Internet to be UN-controlled so that they can get rubber-stamp approval for their own oppressive censorship of the web; second, as noted by the US delegation chief David A. Gross,

For the first time, we see governments internationally recognizing that which we have talked about for many years — that the Internet is a responsibility not only of governments, but also primarily of the private sector, civil society and others both in the developed and the developing countries.

So we see now a consensus around the U.S. position, which is that multistakeholders all play an important role in the process.

Or, as Robert Twomey, president of ICANN, puts it, “[t]he partnership of the private sector and civil society has actually helped build the Internet”. Twomey goes on to point out that the hot-button issues for the politicians, pornography and spam, fall well outside of ICANN’s charter (not that a charter has ever served as much of an impediment when it comes to politicians making soundbites and grabbing power).

If you read the article linked in the previous paragraph, you’ll note the following: ironically underscoring the governmental hubris underlying the whole sordid affair is the fact that, during the proceedings, Twomey and other “outside observers” were ejected from the discussion. Apparently, someone decided that only government officials are qualified to discuss how the Internet is run. Twomey was far from the only representative of civil society or business so snubbed, as 2600 news reports :

The irony here is fairly obvious: civil society is barred from talks at which governments and corporations sing the praises of unfettered access to communications, openness, and equal rights for all. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the way that many of the governments involved treat their own citizens. Indeed, Tunisia, home to the 2005 summit, is itself no fan of a free press, according to the international journalists’ organization Reporters Sans Frontières.

The plan for a 2005 summit in Tunisia is about the only thing actually accomplished at the WSIS, proving once again that the only thing the UN is really good at is writing non-binding constitutions and planning new summits.

One would like to think that the stance taken by the US against UN control of ICANN was a principled one, but maybe it was pure pragmatism (hey, anything’s possible). After all, it’s clear that the public sector cannot secure its own computers and networks, so why would anyone think it could do a better job with everyone else’s. Especially notable is this:

The newest department in the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, got off to a bad start with an overall “F” for its computer security, despite the fact that securing the nation’s network is part of its mission.

Not that I’m the least bit surprised by this.

December 12, 2003

In the News

Posted by shonk at 06:40 PM in Uncategorized Current Events | permalink | comment

Disturbing, but not totally surprising:

Take No Prisoners

French panel favors ban on head scarves

Why not vote?

Posted by shonk at 06:20 PM in Politics | permalink | 1 comment

Unsurprisingly, Fox News is critical of Rock The Vote and other get-out-and-vote organizations for supposedly promulgating and supporting “liberal” candidates. Also unsurprisingly, Fox completely missed the real problem with these organizations: they encourage people to give their tacit support to politicians. Who the voter votes for isn’t nearly as significant as the fact that he votes. After all, in an election, the government always wins.

In the 2004 election, I’m quite sure, many otherwise well-meaning people will trudge to the polls and dutifully vote for Dean or whoever wins the Democratic nomination not because they support him, but because they find the current president repugnant. But this tactic is a classic example of missing the forest for the trees. A choice between a Democrat and a Republican is no choice at all, as the primary objective for both parties is consolidated power. When Hillary Clinton rips into Bush, claiming that “This administration is in danger of being the first in American history to leave our nation worse off than when they found it,” she’s not offering a fundamental critique; she’s merely expressing her frustration at not being in charge herself. To borrow a metaphor, it’s just a ball game: you root for one team and curse the other, but you still want the game to be played. Red Sox fans may hate the Yankees, but they don’t want next year’s games to be cancelled.

As Alvin Lowi so aptly notes,

Politics bears a strong resemblance to messianic theology. Regardless of all the obvious problems associated with its practices, adherents remain steadfast in their belief that the savior is just around the next election.

Lowi is a strong proponent of not voting as, if not a solution, at least a step on the path to recognizing that there is a problem. He recognizes that politics is a dehumanizing institution, one that destroys order in the name of government regulation and law-enforcement. The supposed aim of regulation is to prevent the selfish or destructive from harming themselves and others. A laudable goal, in and of itself, but ultimately based on the incredibly naïve proposition that elected or appointed politicians and bureaucrats will, miraculously, rise above the self-interest and narrow-mindedness that are the purported causes of the problem in the first place. In fact, regulation’s primary purpose is to convince the voters and taxpayers that those in power really deserve their money and support. The best way to do this, of course, is to create new problems (or at least exacerbate existing ones) and then promise to fix them in exchange for more money and power.

With this in mind, it should be clear why I tend not to favor political solutions. Even were it possible to accurately capture the “will of the people” (it’s not), one gains nothing by “giving” power (I use scare quotes because voting purports to give a power that doesn’t exist, namely the power to rule others) to those whose job is to do whatever it takes to stay in power. Returning to Lowi:

Once a person recognizes politics is a game and that it is a game in which only politicians can be winners and everyone else must lose, he will get out of the game for self preservation. This game like all games cannot be played without willing losers. While this game cannot be stopped merely by some who refuse to play it, the non-participants can at least know the game is absurd and turn off to it. While a person can be victimized by a gang of players, he cannot lose a game he does not play.

Not active enough for you? Well, keep this in mind:

Remember, politics is built for conflict. That’s its stock in trade. It has to have a war or a threat of one to subsist. Behind every “liberation” movement, crime or environmental “clean-up” campaign, cultural “purification” pogrom or public “enlightenment” program will be found a political racket.

December 11, 2003

Recovering Lost Knowledge

Posted by shonk at 10:53 PM in Blogging | permalink | 1 comment

In the process of moving, I had to re-do a lot of stuff I had done before but didn’t keep a record of. The most frustrating, so far, has been re-creating my “Reading” head (which should appear to the right). If I ever have to do this again, I want some minimal reminder of what to do and I figure someone might find this interesting.

Basically, I made a new blog called “Reading” in which the only template is the main index template. It uses the MT-Amazon plugin to get the book title, author and image from Amazon based on the ASIN number. The MT-Amazon tags grab the ASIN number of the book I’m reading from the latest entry in the blog, where I’ve simply used the ASIN as the title of the post.

From there, I just use a php include as suggested in this tutorial.

I admit, it’s pretty quick-and-dirty, but so far it seems to work.

Sudden Changes

Posted by shonk at 03:58 AM in Blogging | permalink | 7 comments

Well, if you're reading this, you've realized that the site has moved.

The old domain is dead (or at least inactive), so I've gone out and gotten a new and better one.

I just spent the last three hours transferring all the old posts one-by-one, so I don't have the energy left to write anything intelligible. Hopefully everything will be back to normal within a couple of days.

If I have a spare day or two, I'll think about tackling the problem of trying to transfer all the old comments. As it is, though, I'm focusing on fixing up all the dead links and getting the content back to where it was.

Thanks for dropping by.

December 03, 2003

Me, Style Savant

Posted by Curt at 09:25 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

Unsolicited fashion tip of the day: unpainted brushed-steel cars and zippers on formal jackets. Somebody should make it happen. As for the most oppressive and infamous artificial form that mankind has devised, I choose the barred or gridded window, which constricts the field of vision without developing any feeling of mystery or concealment.

December 01, 2003

Aye From the Back Bench

Posted by Curt at 02:33 PM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

I think that Clay's most recent post delves through many of the epistemological issues I have been fighting with of late, but at the same time the the quote from Wittgenstein that he provides at the end indicates to me why the philosophical psychology always comes in second place, rationalizing what is already done and past rather than creating and causing. What seems to be prized above all else after the waters have been sufficiently "muddied by discourse," as my brother puts it, is tranquillity of mind which will permit one to continue on in life without being reduced to terminal pensive indecisiveness and blank incredulity. Which may perhaps indicate that the very concepts of rationality and logic have been stretched too thinly, made to stand in for God or some other absolute which can support the necessary assumptions of life (but are they really necessary?) and dispel the frightening inscrutabilities.

Articulation and Reason

Posted by shonk at 12:31 AM in Ramblings | permalink | comment

In the comments section associated with Aaron Hartter's post on free will at No Treason I posted the following in response to a claim made by someone calling himself "The Serpent" that belief in free will is irrational because "free will" is a concept that cannot (at least in his opinion) be precisely articulated:

Though I suspect nobody will completely agree with me, I have issues with the serpent's implicit claim that belief in something that cannot be precisely articulated is irrational.

For example, I believe that 2+2=4, which most people would consider rational, even though I cannot precisely define what "2" is in a way that seems obvious to the non-mathematician. However, at least in this instance I can precisely define the concept (though there's a strong argument to be made that the structure of logic is, at best, tenuously connected to reality, whatever that is). More troubling, I think most of the choices I make in the course of a day are rational in the sense that, among the possibilities available to me, the course of action I choose is the one that maximizes my perceived personal utility. But I tend to think that it would be metaphysically impossible for me to precisely articulate what my "personal utility" is to another person.

Now, I know I'm putting the cart before the horse a bit with that last example, but the real kicker is this: I think the one thing we could all agree on is that it is rational for me to think that I exist and that I have a mind. However, I am not at all certain that I could precisely articulate what my mind is. Ultimately, all such definitions come down to is the following: "My mind is me". Which is rather circular, if you ask me.

My point is not to be a sophist, but rather to explain why the "precisely articulated" standard is probably far too rigorous as a judge of what is rational.

Now, I know this is bucking my recent trend of merely rehashing posts made by others, but I want to explore this idea a bit more and get back to the pseudo-intellectualism that is my usual modus operandi.

Before I do so, though, I probably need to back up a bit and explain a little about my metaphysical framework, because I think it's both a bit unusual and much more common than is usually appreciated. This explanation is far from complete, is perhaps even contradictory and I'll probably disagree with the whole thing by the time I re-read it tomorrow. I get back to the point in the third-to-last paragraph, so feel free to skip ahead.

In the past, I've described myself as a "probabalist" because it's the most accurate, though somewhat misleading, title I can think of. Basically, I think we can only have probablistic, rather than absolute, knowledge. For example, I think, with a high degree of certainty, that the sun will rise tomorrow because it has risen every day that I can remember, because all astronomical models I know of predict that it will, etc. However, I have to add the qualifier "with a high degree of certainty" because I acknowledge the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow, either because it could explode between now and then, because I may have been deceived into thinking it has risen every day that I can remember even though it really didn't, because maybe the astronomical models are all wrong. This sounds pedantic, but really all I'm doing is acknowledging that everything we see, read or remember is only accurate to a probability that is strictly less than 1.

Again, I feel like I'm not making this point as clearly as I would like. Suppose, for example, that I'm 99.9999% sure I'm not living in a solipsist's universe, because everything I've experienced is in accordance with the idea that there is a universe outside of my brain that I (imperfectly) sense through sight, sound, touch, etc. Right there, I've reduced my certainty that anything I see or experience is in accordance with reality from 100% to 99.9999% and, since any knowledge I have about the exterior world is based on this assumption, that probability serves as an upper bound on the certainty I may have in anything I claim to know.

The astute reader will quickly realize that this outlook leads to a rather nasty problem, namely that every bit of knowledge is based on an infinite chain or ladder of probabilities, each less than 1. Getting back to the question of whether the sun will rise tomorrow, my knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow is based on the 99.9999% probability mentioned above that I'm not living in a solipsistic universe. But it's also based on the probability that my memory of the sun rising in the past is accurate (say 99.999%). In turn, I have to assume that past events are good predictors of future events; but this assumption is based on my confidence that I can extrapolate from past events - the induction principle, which I am, say, 99.99% confident in. Before I can even apply this confidence in the induction principle, though, I have to assert that this is a reasonable situation in which to apply the induction principle, an assertion I might only have a 99.9% confidence in. One might think that at this point I can merely multiply the stated probabilities and then say that I know, with 99.8% certainty, that the sun will rise tomorrow. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop there. Now, I have to assign a probability to the likelihood that my evaluation of this probability is accurate. And then a probability to the evaluation of this probability, and so on, ad infinitum. Troublingly, as I iterate this process, I arrive at an infinite product of terms each of which is positive and less than one. Which product will tend to zero. And even at that, the whole thing is contingent on how likely it is that my understanding and application of mathematics is accurate and the probability that mathematics has any relevance to the real world.

By this point, if you're still reading, I'm sure this sounds like a huge, sophistic boondoggle, but I'm not convinced that it is. On a practical level, we don't need to worry about this infinite chain of probabilities. If some piece of knowledge seems accurate with a high degree of certainty, we can just say that we "know" it and move on. And this accords with how people really think and act. When I'm hungry, I don't go into metaphysics, I eat something. When I'm tired, I don't reason from first principles, I go to bed because I know that doing so is likely to make me feel better even though I know, practically, that sometimes when I'm tired, I can't go to sleep.

We can even deduce morals from this framework and I would argue that doing so more accurately reflects the way we really make moral judgments. For example, I knew that killing was wrong long before I was exposed to rigorous philosophy. In making that judgment, I was intuiting in a probabalistic sense rather than reasoning deductively. In that sense, the whole approach differs quite a bit from the usual relativist cliché, since it allows for one to know that something is wrong without having to engage in abstract deduction.

Anyway, getting back to the original point, it should be obvious why I don't think it's necessary for something to be precisely articulated in order to make belief in that thing rational. However, even if you vehemently disagree with the (admittedly imprecise and non-rigorous) metaphysics described above, I think there's good reason for rejecting the notion that rational belief requires precise definition.

The reason is this: nothing (that I'm aware of) can be defined precisely enough that there can be no quarrel about that definition. And yes, I'm aware that if you take that statement too literally, it leads to a paradox. Most everybody would agree that it's rational to believe murder is wrong, but no two people that I've encountered have exactly the same definition of what constitutes "murder". Is abortion murder? Many would say yes, others would say no. Is a soldier killing another soldier on the battlefield murder? Even the most diehard militarist would probably agree that it depends on the war, on the soldier and on the situation. Is it murder when a woman shoots a man attempting to rape her? Well, how did she know he was going to rape her? What about when a man shoots a burglar? Or when a man shoots the meter-reader, thinking he was a burglar?

I think the problem I'm trying to express is twofold. First, so far as I know, nobody's knowledge is complete. One can always think of situations where a person's imperfect knowledge would lead him to do something that an "objective" observer would consider wrong. Second, amazingly accurate and reflective of reality though it is, language is imperfect. When we call something "murder", we are trying to apply a label to an abstract concept, but the only way of understanding this label is by allusion or comparison. As another example, when I use terms like "government" or "the State", I'm referring to an abstract concept, but the mental image that most people get is of some concrete exponent of that abstract concept: the White House or the roads or a congressman or the DMV or a ballot or the police. Language, in a sense, is general, whereas our experience is particular; for this reason definitions are never really precise, except perhaps in abstract or artificial environments like mathematics or logic.

As I have, by now, thoroughly muddied the waters of discourse, I'll leave you with two quotes from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Grammar:

What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.

Language must speak for itself.

Philosophical Grammar, pg. 40

(While thinking philosophically we see problems in places where there are none. It is for philosophy to show that there are no problems.)
Philosophical Grammar, pg. 47