Tuesday, December 28, 2004


Having received a nice link from my favorite blogger, I'm feeling pretty excited. I hope I keep saying useful things!

One thing I've been doing in spare time lately is surfing minor right-wing blogs and politely correcting misperceptions about Democrats. (I look at this as a reasonably successful sortie.) I do this partly because attacking a straw man is probably the most effective argumentative fallacy in politics. You convince your audience that your opponent is a dumb or evil person with a dumb or evil view, that they don't need to read any more about the opposing view, and even that the opponent's accurate presentations of his view are dishonest flip-flopping. The echo-chamber tendencies of the blogosphere cause straw man arguments to spread rapidly -- the less contact you have with sophisticated expositors of the opposing argument, the less likely you are to make contact with the real argument you're attacking.

(On the non-straw-man side, it's also good to spread facts that will keep right-wing fantasies from raging out of control. It would've been nice to quickly debunk the rumor about the embed planting the "hillbilly armor" question to the soldier, which was running throughout the right-wing blogosphere a week ago. Unfortunately I saw the article too late.)

I don't have any illusions that my actions immediately convert anybody. But there are some things that I hope to accomplish. For one thing, our opponents will put more effort into being intellectually honest if they're aware that there's a liberal out there in the audience, ready to stop any straw man action they try to pull. Remember that there's one thing that conservatives will regard a liberal commenter as an authority about -- liberal positions and arguments. While you might not make much headway on "How bad are things in Iraq?", you're likely to do much better on "Is Howard Dean a radical pacifist?" or "Do Democrats love Yasser Arafat?"

This goes without saying, but politeness is a prerequisite for this kind of work. Putting a friendly face on liberalism is very valuable, and being more polite than your host is one way of doing that. The only thing that one should show anger about, I think, is a drastic misrepresentation of liberal positions. (For example: when it's claimed that our attacks on neocons are actually covert anti-Semitism.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

The doing / allowing distinction

Matt Yglesias makes some good consequentialist arguments for bringing back corporal punishment. I imagine that lots of the resistance to this idea comes from the different attitudes people have to doing harms (for example, by flogging a criminal) and allowing harms (for example, by putting a criminal in prison where other prisoners keep raping him). Even if it isn't me personally doing the flogging but the government acting as my representative, corporal punishment trips the 'doing' intuition. On the other hand, the harms done to the criminal by other prisoners count as things I've allowed but not as things that I've done. Doing harms is usually taken much more seriously than allowing them.

It's interesting how imprisonment -- the currency of punishment today -- allows us to do so little harm but allow so much.

Bob, Viragen, and Social Security

Bob the security guard is one of the most-loved figures at Kirkland House, where I spent my last three years at Harvard. In 2000, my friend Ed Chen and I found out that Bob had, several years ago, been the victim of an unscrupulous broker who convinced him to put $5000 into a struggling biotech company called Viragen. Bob had bought his shares somewhere around $35 in early 1997, and watched them decline for several years.

Bob really didn't know anything about the stock market. He didn't know that if you get a cold call from a broker you don't know trying to convince you to buy some stock, you should never take the deal. Usually this means that some big holder wants to sell quick and most investors know the stock is overpriced, so nobody wants to buy. Some scammer gets hired to dredge up buyers however possible. Bob just listened to what the broker told him and paid $35 for a stock that's worth less than $1 today. (Fortunately, Bob doesn't still own Viragen. Ed and I got him out of it at about $18 during the 2000 biotech craze. All prices mentioned here are split-adjusted.)

If Social Security gets replaced with a system of private accounts, I imagine that cases like Bob's will be a lot more common. Many people in this country don't have even the most rudimentary investment skills. Forcing them to handle stocks when they have no idea how to invest is a very bad idea. And when you eliminate the old Social Security system that would have taken care of everyone no matter how bad an investor they were, you leave these people with nothing to fall back on if they get scammed out of their retirement money. This is a recipe for disaster.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Immortal souls

As a Christian, CS Lewis believed that human beings had immortal souls while animals did not. This did not justify humans in being cruel towards animals, however -- in fact, it gave us an extra reason to be kind towards them. Unlike us, they could not "be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this."

The intuition here is a bit more of a Rawlsian one than a utilitarian one -- animal suffering is especially bad because it's hurting those who have the least. In any case, it's something that nonbelievers in any immortal souls can quite happily take on board. For us, making the world a better place is a matter of special urgency. Nobody -- human or animal -- will be recompensed for present suffering by happiness in another life. So we need to act now to prevent suffering and foster happiness on earth.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas music

I generally dislike Christmas music. I suspect that part of the reason stores play it so much is to remind you that it's the season for buying lots of their stuff. However, I do enjoy hearing a cheerful young woman singing that it's lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with me. Strange techno/ alternative/ industrial renditions of old Christmas favorites are also welcome.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Excused absence, kinda

Perhaps you were wondering why I didn't blog much between the 14th and the 19th, though you probably weren't. I was busy defending liberal sex education on a blog that belongs to two conservative friends of mine. I'm generally happy with how the discussion went.

Okay, so I was also busy playing way too much Medal of Honor. Lately I've been playing under the name "donald rumsfeld is a n00b lamer." It's an epithet that fits Rumsfeld rather well* and it's cool for a military-themed first-person shooter. (For a while I was "IraqStyle: No Armor" but I thought that might go over people's heads.)

*In team video game slang, n00b, short for newbie, has a connotation of general incompetence. "Lamers" are people who behave in lame ways, usually getting their teammates killed or preventing them from achieving goals.

Regionalism gone mad

From an article about the freakish crime in Kansas where a pregnant woman was killed and her baby stolen:

Hours before her arrest, Montgomery and her husband showed off a newborn girl at a restaurant, said Kathy Sage, owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe in Melvern, a small eastern Kansas town...

"You read about this stuff," she said. "It blows you away when it's here. This stuff is supposed to be in New York City or Los Angeles."

Is this the way that people in red states think of blue states? No wonder Kerry lost the election.

Edwards '08.

Social Security semantics

Like a good analytic philosopher, Josh Marshall tests our conceptual intuitions about a counterfactual scenario and explains why it's correct to say that the Republicans are planning to eliminate Social Security.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Missile defense follies

The latest about the multibillion-dollar scam that is national missile defense: It appears that the system's designers are afraid to test it in the rain.

The test would be the first since a December 2002 failure in which the "kill vehicle" -- a Raytheon Co.-built 120-pound package of sensors, chips and thrusters -- failed to separate from its booster rocket. Of eight intercepts attempted so far, five hit their targets, but under highly scripted conditions.

In some cases, 'scripted conditions' means sticking a homing beacon onto the target so that the kill vehicle can find it.

The best way to stop nuclear missile attack is to buy up all the loose nuclear material so the terrorists can't get to it first. Putting international pressure on countries to stop developing their nuclear arsenal -- as the Europeans successfully did with Iran -- is also big part of the plan.

Democracy and terrorism

Enough reading of Yglesias and other smart people has taught me that setting up democracy doesn't help you eliminate terrorism, at least in the short term. Since terrorists don't need to be state-sponsored, they can flourish no matter what kind of political system they're in. Terrorists of both the international and intranational varieties may even do better in democracy, since democratic governments are less likely to take hard-core repressive measures that could stop them. And as far as intranational terrorism goes, cohesive ethnic/religious minorities (N. Ireland, the Tamil in Sri Lanka, Basque separatists) will still engage in terrorism because they don't want to be part of the same democracy as everybody else, since that just allows the large number of other people to rule them.

Iraq is a perfect example of a state that's going to run into these problems. You can't split up the country because Sistani and the Shiites won't let you. So the minority Sunnis are going to be stuck in the same country as the Shiites whom they held power over for so long. Since the Shiites control lots of the oil-rich lands and the Sunnis don't, there are going to be explosive economic issues at stake too.

There are long-term ways in which democracy helps against terrorism. If democracy leads to the government helping the people develop their economy, and they all get rich and happy, they might not do so much terrorism of either kind. And if they feel that their government represents them, they're probably not going to attack it. But in the short term (which could be a few decades) terrorism continues.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Amartya Sen interview

Here's an excellent interview with Amartya Sen, winner of the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences (known to some as the Nobel Prize in Economics). He's one of my favorite economists, and my thinking on globalization/trade issues has come to run in the direction that he's pointing here. I've excerpted my favorite parts below:
...economic globalization itself could be a source of major advancement of living conditions, and it often is. The main difficulty is that the circumstances in which it produces the maximum benefits for poorer people do not exist now. This is not however an argument for being against global economic contact but rather an argument for working towards a better division of benefits from global economic contact.

It is not, by and large, the case that as a result of globalization the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer, which is the rhetoric that is often used, and which I believe is mistaken. It may have happened in a few countries, but by and large, this is not the case. The relative success or failure of globalization should not be measured by whether the poor are getting a little richer; the question is: could they have become a lot richer by the same process if the governing circumstances were different? And the answer is yes. This requires both national, local policies like advancing educational arrangements, particularly school education, advancing basic health care, advancing gender equity, undertaking land reforms. It can also be helped by a more favourable global trade situation and more equitable economic arrangements, for example better access to the markets in the richer countries, which would help the poorer countries to benefit more from global economic contact. For that, patent laws have to be re-examined, arrangements have to be made whereby the richer countries are welcoming to commodities coming from poorer countries, and so on. Globalization can become more equitable and effective through these changes. So the issue is not whether economic globalization is ruining people. It may not be doing that, and yet it can actually benefit people much more - and this is the central issue - than it is doing now.
When, at a point of particular repression in British India, Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a journalist in London what he thought of British civilization, Gandhi had replied, "It would be a good idea."
There is often a peculiarly mistaken diagnosis suggesting that somehow it is the celebration of reason in the Enlightenment, beginning in the mid-18th century, that is responsible for the Nazi concentration camps, the Japanese prisoner of war camps, and the Hutu violence against Tutsis in Rwanda. I really do not see why people take that view because these are quintessential examples of people being driven by passion rather than by reason. In fact reason could have played a major part in moderating such turmoil. When a Hutu, for instance, is being told that he is just a Hutu and he ought to kill Tutsis on grounds that Tutsis are an enemy lot, a Hutu could reason that he is not only a Hutu but he is also a Rwandan, an African, a human being, and all these identities make some demands on his attention. It is reason which could stand up against the imposition of unreasoned identities on people (such as, "You are just a Hutu and nothing else").

As a child, I saw the Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1940s and I know how easy it is to make people forget their reasoning and the understanding of the basic plurality of their identities in favor of one fierce identity, whether fiercely Hindu, or fiercely Muslim. There again the appeal has to be to reason. Indeed, precisely because we have emerged from such a blood-drenched century, it is extraordinarily important to fight for reason - to celebrate it, to defend it, and to help expand its reach.
Colonialism imprisons the mind. But the colonized mind often takes a deeply dialectical form. One of the forms that the colonized mind takes is rabid anti-Westernism: you judge the world in terms of having been dominated by the West for a hundred years or more, and this can become the overarching concern, drowning all other identities and priorities. Suddenly, for example, activist Arab-Muslims might become persuaded that they must see themselves as people who are trying to settle scores with the West - and all other affiliations and associations are unimportant. The whole tradition of Arab science, Arab mathematics, Arab literature, music, painting would then have lost their informing and identifying role. That is the result of a colonized mind because you forget everything else other than your relation with the former colonial masters. I would link the outburst of some of the violence we see today to a deeply misguided reaction to colonialism; it is certainly not unconnected with colonialism.
The success of India in preventing famines is an easy success, because famines are extremely easy to politicize: all you have to do is to print a picture of an emaciated mother and a dying child on the front page and that in itself is a stinging editorial. It does not require much reflection. But in order to bring quiet but widespread hunger to public attention, in order to publicize the debilitating effects of lack of schooling and illiteracy, and similarly the long-term deprivations of not having land reform, you need a great deal more engagement and use of imagination.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Secret identity

Originally uploaded by ethicalwerewolf.
By the command of Super Majikthise, I bring you Neil the Werewolf. It was especially nice that the UGO Hero Machine allowed me to be holding fire and sword -- those who have seen me at parties can guess what'll happen next.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Abstinence-based confusion

Occasionally, abstinence-based education programs include some really weird things. Among these are the claim that HIV can be spread by sweat and tears and that 10% of women who have abortions become sterile. But the thing that struck me as creepiest was this:

Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for "admiration" and "sexual fulfillment" compared with a woman's need for "financial support." One book in the "Choosing Best" series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. "Moral of the story," notes the popular text: "Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess."

Note to any princesses who might be reading: TELL ME HOW TO KILL THE DRAGON. Tell me in excruciating and redundant detail if need be. I'll survive, you'll look smart, the dragon will be dead, and I'll get to hear you talk more, which turns me on. Or, hey, if you're better at killing dragons than me, I'll be content with doing the dishes and freeing up your time for more monster slayage. Good men don't let gender roles get in the way of utility-maximization.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Fafblog for you!

Fafnir explains why the national debt is really cool.
In a way it is a national treasure, like in that movie "National Treasure," only here instead of bein a big thing of money it's a big hole where money used to be.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Incoherence and Satan

I've been up for about 27 straight hours now. This isn't because of any bad circumstances, but because I've been having way too much fun. I went to a talk, then a reception, then played video games with John, then went to a party, then talked about philosophy and economics with Howard, and then played more video games for 6 hours with Howard and an asian dude named Albert whom we met at the computers. This post will probably be incoherent. I will go to sleep soon so I can go to dinner at Dennis' place tonight.

Howard and Albert and I were playing Medal of Honor, a first-person shooter. Albert got us onto a modded server. We soon discovered that one of the stages, where people fight on a set of ruins that includes a deserted church, had been modified so that the church was Satanic. If you sold your soul to Satan, you would get cool powers like the ability to fly around. We ended up losing that stage since it was so much fun to keep selling our souls that everyone forgot to fight properly. We couldn't stop laughing about it. (Obviously, there are reasons why elements like that do not exist in the original games.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Undercover Epistemic Agents

I want to introduce you to the funniest philosophy paper I've ever read: The Real Guide to Fake Barns: A Catalogue of Gifts for your Epistemic Enemies, the first paper listed on Tamar Gendler's homepage. Getting all the jokes does require some familiarity with contemporary epistemology, however.

being pleased that

Suppose Ed McMahon shows up at my door with a huge check, telling me that I've won the sweepstakes. I am very pleased! I continue to be pleased for the next few minutes, until it's revealed that this is all a big reality TV prank and I haven't actually won anything. Ed and the camera crews go home. I go and get something to eat.

Consider the following statement, said after the event: "Neil was pleased that he had won the sweepstakes." Is it true or false? I solicit replies from philosophers and non-philosophers alike. No defense of your view need be given, unless you feel like it.