Search This Blog

Loading...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Karl's Still Going Strong

Here's an interesting tidbit: Karl Marx is the most assigned economist in U.S. college classes:
More than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of market-economy practices in China, “The Communist Manifesto” still ranks among the three most frequently assigned texts at American universities. 
That’s according to data from Open Syllabus Project, which tracks books and other works assigned to students in more than 1 million syllabi.
That's pretty good staying power!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Go Forth and Multiply

A couple of paragraphs in an article titled How Anti-Discrimination Became a Religion, and What It Means for Judaism caught my eye (don't ask me how I happened upon that article - I have absolutely no idea!):
As for those who remain active members of the Jewish community, they will be divided among a large but shrinking cohort of mostly Reform and other religiously liberal Jews; a smaller but vigorous group of modern and centrist Orthodox Jews joined by remnants of the rapidly declining Conservative movement; and a large and rapidly growing group of ḥaredi or “ultra-Orthodox” Jews. 
At some point, indeed, this last-named group, whose current rate of per-year population growth stands at an astonishing 5.5-percent, will form a significant element of the public “face” of American Jewry.
Before I get to my main point, I first have to point out that even though I'm jewish through ancestry (though non-practicing), ultra-orthodox Jews are as strange and exotic to me as the Amish or Tibetan monks or something like that. For example, if, for some reason, I suddenly decided that I needed to go to some sort of religious service, while my first choice would be a Reform Jewish service, I'd much rather go to, oh, I dunno, let's say a Methodist service or something like that, rather than an ultra-Orthodox Jewish service.

As far as I can tell, the ultra-Orthodox could never really be the "face" or in any way representative of all American Jews. Or, at least, I rather hope not.

But there is that population growth thing to consider. 5.5 percent per year really is astonishing (basically more than doubling every generation and amounts to over 6 children per woman on average) and if maintained, would indeed eclipse the rest of the shrinking American Jewish population in just a handful of generations.

What really caught my attention, though, was how well this real-life scenario potentially fits the population simulations I did a while back:
The simulation is fairly simple. Start with a population of 1,000,000,000 people. There are two types of "genes" in this population. The most common and also dominant gene is the "barren gene" and compels its individual to produce one child on average. Given that it takes two parents to produce a child, if this were the only "gene," the population would halve every generation and mankind would indeed go extinct in only a few hundred years.

The second "gene" is the "fruitful gene" and potentially compels its individual to have three children on average. However, since this "gene" is recessive, the individual is only compelled to have three children if he or she has two of these "genes." At the start of the simulation, only five-percent of the genes are of this type. So not only is it recessive, it's also rare. If a double "fruitful" mates with a someone with at least one "barren gene", they split the difference and have two children.
This very pessimistic simulation shows the population dropping fairly precipitously for 15 to 20 generations until the "fruitfuls" finally become common enough to overwhelm the "barrens" and then the population comes roaring back in 20 to 30 generations.

Here, in real life, the non-ultra-Orthodox American Jews pretty much follow the "barren" pattern (somewhat more than one child per couple) and the ultra-Orthodox Jews are more than "fruitful" (more than 6 children per couple), at least at the moment. In addition, unlike the simulation where all mating is random making it unlikely for the rare "fruitfuls" to mate with each other until enough "barrens" have died out, the ultra-Orthodox clearly seek each other out at a far greater rate than would occur in random mating.

That's why when some folks get to hand-wringing about falling birthrates, I'm far from concerned. Some group will always be happy to go forth and multiply and be there to inherit the earth.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

His true greatest blunder?

Albert Einstein had an interesting life.

No, I do not mean revolutionizing physics and the human knowledge, or to become one of the most recognized faces in history. I mean he had, by any measure, a life full of interesting and rich experiences.

He got to closely witness the two World Wars and the advent of the Nuclear Age brought on his shoulders. He got to personally witness totalitarian - and racial - persecution. He got to witness the onset of communism in Russia and the rise of the Soviet Empire. He got to travel the world and experience many different cultures, in a time when that was a privilege for very few. When he took refuge in America, he had a good knowledge of much of the globe to compare to his new capitalist and rich home.

Before fame, he got to work within the bureaucratic machine in an alleged boring job (patent clerk), and afterwards in a few Universities owned by the State, so he was hardly a strange to Kafkanian government inefficiencies. Heck, he actually worked in Prague for a couple of years and had Kafka as an acquaintance.

And he got to witness all that from the height of a privileged mind, one that allegedly had much interest in society and the human condition, departing from the stereotype of the absent minded scientist.

All the above is to say that, to this blogger - a far lower mind than Einstein and possessing incomparably less world shattering life experiences - it is a complete mystery how Einstein could write this apology for Socialism.

It is a most daring effort for crackpots (and also real physicists) out there, since at least 1905, to try and prove Einstein wrong at his famous theories. I therefore invite the readers of this Great blog to take their shot at, in an once in a lifetime chance, really proving Einstein wrong upon reading his text. Beware though, for he is famed to always be right at the end - even when he was widely believed to be wrong, as the cosmological constant (his self declared greatest blunder) teaches us.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

This does not sit well

Now this comes to light:

What possible reason would the French government have for covering up the fact that many victims of the terrorist attack in Paris at the Bataclan music hall were apparently savagely tortured?

They not only covered it up, they're still lying about it today.
...
 The lies and coverup are the result of the government not trusting that the people can handle the truth. Horror of horrors if there's an anti-Muslim backlash or voters demand that the French government do more in the fight against ISIS. It's far easier to suppress the truth than deal with the reality that the terrorists are operating on another moral plane than the rest of us, which gives them a significant advantage. They don't have to worry about whether a bombing attack will kill civilians. It's part of their strategy for civilians to die. They don't care if we blanch when they execute a prisoner in a particularly gruesome way. They want us to be scared of them. And they have no qualms about carrying out the most gruesome torture on helpless victims. They want our horror to paralyze us.
...

But nations like France, which have done little to assist the U.S. in fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, don't want to acknowledge the truth. If they did, they would have to do something about it. So they treat their citizens like little children and try to suppress the knowledge that there are monsters under the bed who want to do them harm.

This is not a strategy for victory against ISIS.
In a free society, people have a right to know these things.

Dennis Prager has his take on the matter:
It appears that no matter how many men, women, and children Islamists slaughter or maim, few in the West take Islamic terror seriously. This may sound odd given how much talk there is about terror, but a compelling case can be made for this assertion.
...

It is inconceivable that this situation will long endure. Most people in the West do not share its elites’ broken moral compass.
Michael Walsh says, "enough"

...And yet still the West refuses to take even the most rudimentary steps to protect itself against a known, sworn enemy. Why?
Lots of reasons: ennui, cultural Marxism, the mutation of the Left into a suicide cult that wants to take the rest of us with it. A loss of faith in organized religion (some of it brought on by the faiths themselves, or rather the imperfect men who represent and administer them). The transformation of government schools into babysitting services for subsections of the populace with severe cultural learning disabilities, no matter the skin color of the pupil. The marginalization of the very notion of excellence. And a political class that is little more than a collection of criminals, throne-sniffers, pantywaists and bum-kissers, all dedicated to their own enrichment.
...
 Western civilization has defended us for centuries. Isn't it about time we defended it?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Common Phrases

There are certain ideas that are frequently stated. In fact, some ideas are stated numerous times by nearly every parent who ever lived. For example, ideas about the value of hard work and the value of people believing what you say. In English alone, each of those ideas has been expressed countless billions of times by parents, teachers and mentors.

There are only so many ways to express each of those ideas. The simplest way to express the first value above is "work hard for what you want." "Work hard" is simpler but not quite complete. It can be modified and/or embellished, for example, "work hard for what you are passionate about" or "work hard for what you want in life" but there's really not that many different ways to convey that particular idea and keep it simple, short and concise.

So I'm more than a little surprised that Melania Trump is being accused of plagiarizing a speech many years ago by Michele Obama. Here are the two most similar (nearly identical) excerpts (non-matching punctuation removed by me in each since they were delivered verbally):
"...values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say..." Michelle Obama, 2008
"...values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say..." Melania Trump, 2016
That's not that long of a string of words discussing nearly universally held values with not all that many ways to say them in a speech where brevity and conciseness is important. I've certainly personally said or written "work hard for what you want in life" and "you do what you say" many, many times. Much of the rest of the wording is connectors (like "and," "that" and so forth). I personally wouldn't say "your word is your bond" because that's not my style but I'm certain that Michelle Obama is NOT the first person to coin that phrase and I've heard it many, many times as well.

There are two possibilities. One is that those 23 words are one of the most effective ways to convey those particular values in a speech and, as a result, Obama and Trump happened to use the same words. The other is that Melania Trump and supporting speechwriters pored through Michelle Obama speeches and deliberately copied those 23 words. Perhaps there are other possibilities as well, but I think those are the most likely.

Of those two possibilities, the first seems far, far more likely to me. As I write this, I think "they" are still investigating, so I'm curious as to what the final outcome is.

But if that is considered plagiarism, I'm certain that many of the one to two dozen word strings I've written in this blog (and elsewhere) certainly match something somebody else somewhere sometime has written. In which case you can look down your nose at me as a lowly plagiarist too! Sorry, we can't all be perfectly original all of the time.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

An efficient lecture

Knowing very well, by now, the preferences of most readers of this Great blog, I am aware videos (and a long one at that) of discredited sources (Al Jazeera!) would hardly make it past their clicking threshold.

So why would I make my first post here at Great Guys such a flop?

Well, because in three weeks my country will be the source of nearly 4 billion question marks around the globe. And I can answer most of the awkward political questions that may follow with one single 10 minutes video. 

Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) was our President from 1995 to 2003. He was very cozy with Bill Clinton back then. He is hailed as modernizing and introducing Brazil to then so called (and now forgotten) ’Washington consensus’. He is, to many people out there, the opposite of the ‘socialists’ we’ve got since he left office. Or so they suppose. Because all you need to know about our politics, past, present and future, is condensed in those short 10 minutes. Really.

When I watched it, my first thought was "Hey, in my 20+ years of watching FHC on TV, I never saw an interview where he was treated like that. I mean, not even 10% like that. What a cheap media we have in this Banana Republic!"

But then I tried to remember Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton ever getting such treatment, and disavowed myself of that notion.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Unclear on the Concept



I guess the scientism discussion we had not too long ago was completely futile. According to James Blachowicz, professor emeritus of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, there is no scientific method.

In 1970, I had the chance to attend a lecture by Stephen Spender. He described in some detail the stages through which he would pass in crafting a poem. He jotted on a blackboard some lines of verse from successive drafts of one of his poems, asking whether these lines (a) expressed what he wanted to express and (b) did so in the desired form. He then amended the lines to bring them closer either to the meaning he wanted to communicate or to the poetic form of that communication.

I was immediately struck by the similarities between his editing process and those associated with scientific investigation and began to wonder whether there was such a thing as a scientific method. Maybe the method on which science relies exists wherever we find systematic investigation. In saying there is no scientific method, what I mean, more precisely, is that there is no distinctly scientific method.

There is meaning, which we can grasp and anchor in a short phrase, and then there is the expression of that meaning that accounts for it, whether in a literal explanation or in poetry or in some other way. Our knowledge separates into layers: Experience provides a base for a higher layer of more conceptual understanding. This is as true for poetry as for science.

Wait. What?

Near as I can tell, this is the charge: Since the poetry, or indeed any, editing process is similar to scientific investigation, then there is no method that is distinctly scientific. (That's entirely aside from a perfect example of question begging: asserting as true that which hasn't been demonstrated.)

This, in a sentence, encapsulates the enduring problem with philosophy. Start from an unknown point and head in your preferred direction, and you can end up wherever you want.

The problem here, in case it isn't already obvious, is that the process he is describing is recursion: repeated application of the output of a process to the input of the process. That's it. Nothing more, and nothing inherently scientific about it.

His argument is that the scientific method amounts to nothing more than recursion, but this is exactly where he goes astray, and in more ways than one.

Yes, at some level, the scientific method appears recursive. Acquire data, formulate/modify hypotheses, accept those that best explain the data. Rinse and repeat. He equates "meaning" with hypothesis, without regard to the subjectivity of "meaning" and, I guess, though it isn't clear, words with data.

He further illustrates this process by reaching rigorous definitions for words:

Suppose you and I try to define courage. We would begin with the meaning that is familiar to both of us. This shared meaning will be used to check proposed definitions and provide typical examples of it. Commonly, we may not be able to explain what something is, but we know it when we see it.

So what do we mean by courage? Let’s try, “Courage is the ability to act in the face of great fear.” This is an attempt to articulate (define) what we mean by courage. What we do next is to compare the actual meaning of courage we both possess with the literal meaning of the expression “the ability to act in the face of great fear.”

More lather-rinse-repeat, stripping away overburden and sloppy contradictions until we reach the essence of the word. But that is yet another example of question begging: there is, in a series of letters, a pure concept that means the same thing to everyone in a given circumstance, never mind all manner of circumstances.

Now comes the part of the essay where the square peg meets round hole:

Early on, Kepler determined that the orbit of Mars was not a circle (the default perfect shape of the planetary spheres, an idea inherited from the Greeks). There is a very simple equation for a circle, but the first noncircular shape Kepler entertained as a replacement was an oval. Despite our use of the word “oval” as sometimes synonymous with ellipse, Kepler understood it as egg-shaped (in the asymmetrical chicken-egg way). Maybe he thought the orbit had to be lopsided (rather than symmetrical) because he knew the Sun was not at the center of the oval. Unfortunately, there is no simple equation for such an oval (although there is one for an ellipse).

When a scientist tests a hypothesis and finds that its predictions do not quite match available observations, there is always the option of forcing the hypothesis to fit the data. One can resort to curve-fitting, in which a hypothesis is patched together from different independent pieces, each piece more or less fitting a different part of the data. A tailor for whom fit is everything and style is nothing can make me a suit that will fit like a glove — but as a patchwork with odd random seams everywhere, it will also not look very much like a suit.

The apparent lesson? It isn't just observed facts driving theorizing, but rather an insistence upon an outside the evidence notion of underlying simplicity. This is crazy talk. Kepler determined the Mars' orbit isn't circular, despite settled opinion on the matter, because observations didn't fit. He didn't force the theory to fit the observations, he chucked the theory. One could resort to curve fitting, but that inevitably entails the same problem of using adjoining maps for wallpaper: very quickly, things don't fit, and there is no smoothing the discontinuities.

Apparently unsatisfied with mere question begging and conceptual confusion, he betrays profound ignorance:

Yet in science, just as in defining a concept like courage, ad hoc exceptions are sometimes exactly what are needed. While Galileo’s law prescribes that the trajectory of a projectile like a cannonball follows a parabolic path, the true path deviates from a parabola, mostly because of air resistance. That is, a second, separate causal element must be accounted for. And so we add the ad hoc exception “except when resisted by air.”

Yes, of course. The mass of air molecules isn't just as much a matter of physics as gravity. It is ad hoc.

Right.

Professor Blachowicz ultimately makes a valid point, that the results of science are more reliable than other realms of human inquiry because the data the hard sciences deal with is sufficiently quantifiable to allow some hypotheses, while excluding others. Because of that, the scientific method, properly understood has that name for a very specific reason: it works with concrete subjects, and nowhere else.





Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Of Course I Don't

Kurt Schlichter proposes the following as an example of following the rule of law:
Think about it. If you are out driving at 3 a.m., do you stop at a stop sign when there’s no one coming? Of course you do.
Of course I DON'T. Oh sure, once upon a time I stopped, but now? Nope, I look around to make sure there aren't any cops, make sure I won't cause an accident, and then I roll right on through.

Image result for metered on rampCalifornia has metered on-ramps. I think they actually work reasonably well so I have no problem with the concept. However, like the one in the picture, sometimes there's nobody there, so to stop and then accelerate to freeway speeds is simply a waste of time and gas (and hey, I should care about those CO2 emissions, right?). So for on-ramps I'm familiar with, if nobody's there, I just make sure no cops are watching and then I blow right on through.

Then, of course, I got to thinking (always dangerous). What's really the difference between running a metered on ramp red light and red lights in general? Or stop signs? Or ignoring any traffic law as long as safety isn't compromised (too much)? And many if not most people exceed the speed limit anyway, right? Therefore, I decided that there's no difference, and I take traffic laws as sort of advisory coupled with some effort to avoid getting caught breaking them.

Schlicter's point is that if people believe in the rule of law and believe in the leaders and rulers, they'll follow the law by custom. But as he notes:
The idea of the rule of law today is a lie. There is no law. There is no justice. There are only lies.
This is Schlicter's Independence Day column. Conservatives are simply giving up. We are no longer part of the nation. Some are working against the system. Most, like me, are just ignoring the system whenever possible (things like traffic laws and bureaucratic ridiculousness) and are keeping our heads down and hoping nobody notices us while we live out the remainder of our lives. Sort of like serfs. And note that freedom is decreasing World Wide:
The world was battered by crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources, and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent….
I think it bodes badly for the country and perhaps the world but that's for the younger generation to worry about. And that's the context within I wrote the TEXIT post the other day. Would conservatives be allowed to migrate to one state and leave or will we and our descendants be forced to live within this nation controlled by progressives until the end of time?

Is there a right to self-determination?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Ignorance on Parade

Before I could even form the outline of a post based upon a fine column, Jonah Goldberg is on it:

Kevin Williamson’s piece on “Rationalia” may be the best thing he’s written in a while — which is quite a high bar. But I may be biased because it is so in my wheelhouse. For those of you who read the Tyranny of Clichés or any of my extended rants on philosophical Pragmatism and “science,” this should be no surprise.

Kevin is right that Neil deGrasse Tyson’s brain fart fantasy of a virtual country where “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence” is “school boy nonsense.” We all knew kids in high school — some of us may even have been that kid before we matured — who pompously argued that this or that law or controversy was stupid because the right answer is obvious. The problem is that such thinking isn’t educated out of kids, it is pounded into them. Worse, as Kevin notes, it has been routinely and consistently elevated to a level of intellectual and philosophical profundity.
...
The Pragmatists gave philosophical heft to the Progressive crusade for “disinterestedness.” Progressive officials and journalists weren’t pursuing their own interests or privileging their own agendas, they were simply charting the course for the best outcomes based on “science.” This habit of mind, which Hayek dubbed “scientism,” has poisoned the liberal blood stream ever since. Woodrow Wilson suffered from it, as did FDR and JFK. Paul Krugman insists he has no liberal biases, it’s just that facts have a liberal bias. Confidence that planners, armed with reason alone, could outthink markets in particular and reality in general, has been the most reliable midwife of unintended outcomes for the last two centuries.
The epistemological problems with this kind of confirmation bias are obviously bad enough. But the more important point is that this line of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic. The whole point of this line of argument is to take decisions away from the people and put it in the hands of experts who know better.
...
Politics in the most basic Aristotelian and democratic senses rests on the idea that people can disagree about what the right course of action is.
...
Indeed, most meaningful political disputes are fundamentally disputes over competing values. That means people of good will can disagree on what the evidence shows or, more importantly, on which evidence should win out. Tyson thinks that all good and right people will see the “evidence” the same way. I honestly believe only arrogant or naive fools and oblivious dogmatists can think that is right.

There are many disputes that arise from differing  preferences.  When those differences are about values, negotiating a peaceful resolution in the political realm are a bit tricky.  Refusal by either side to engage in open and honest discussion of such matters is just asking for heightened conflict.  Given the behavior I frequently encounter, it's hard to know if the ignorance is willful or if it derives from a will to power.  I try to give the benefit of the doubt but sometimes it's real hard.

update:

I highly recommend the video at the end of the column linked to  - for those who don't do videos, if you follow the video to youtube, the "more" drop-down menu has a very accurate transcript.

Also, another column reminds me of a recent observation.  In the last year or two many of my progressive friends have exhibited not just difference of preferences, but a growing intolerance to the mere expression of difference of opinion.  Friends who are not progressives have confirmed that same experience.  It's getting even more difficult to have fruitful discussions.
I don’t think people appreciate how pernicious and widespread this crowdsourced totalitarianism really is. Routine lies in the service of left-wing narratives are justified in the name of “larger truths,” while actual truth-telling in the other direction is denounced as hate speech or “triggering.” 

Even when liberals call for an “honest conversation” about this, that, or the other thing, what they really mean is they want everyone who disagrees with the prevailing progressive view to fall in line. Almost invariably, when I hear calls for “frank talk,” “honest dialogue,” or a new “national conversation,” I immediately translate it as, “Let the next chapter of indoctrination begin.” It’s a way of luring dissenters from political correctness out into the open so they can be smashed over the head with a rock.
...
But when someone on the other side of the ideological chasm questions the official narrative, they must be demonized or otherwise silenced. Why? Because the last thing progressives want is to start an honest conversation. They want to have their conversations — and only their conversations.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

More Gloom ... for Apocaholics

The Malthusians of the world are always right until they’re wrong. They’ll warn of impending resource depletion until they’re blue in the face, but time and again human ingenuity (and natural providence) has made fools of them. We’ve seen two welcome new examples of Gaia’s riches this week—what’ll we find next?
So concludes an article at The American Interest. (h/t Instapundit)  It mentions:
 As one of the researchers put it, “[t]here’s a lot more fresh groundwater in California than people know.” The breakthrough here involved searching for water deeper underground than aquifers designated for human consumption typically lie.
...
    
Halfway across the world a different group of scientists employing a novel new detection technique found an enormous new supply of helium gas—an increasingly scarce element that’s critically important for advanced scientific research and medical technologies—in Tanzania. The University of Oxford reports:
[A] research group from Oxford and Durham universities, working with Norway-headquartered helium exploration company Helium One, has developed a brand new exploration approach. The first use of this method has resulted in the discovery of a world-class helium gas field in Tanzania. […]
...
 
Helium prices have quintupled since 2000 as supplies have started to dwindle. You can understand, then, why this discovery is being described as a “game changer,” and not just for the fact of this specific supply alone, either: this was the first place these scientists employed their new surveying technique. They’re batting 1.000, and could now apply this technique in areas with similar geology in different parts of the world.

The Apocaholics, control freaks and statists of varying stripes just never learn...

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit! Texit?

The British voted to leave the EU.

I realize that the political structure of Britain within the EU is different than the political structure of Texas within the United States, but if Texas wanted to leave, from the perspective of human rights and the right of self determination, would a TEXIT be that much different than a BREXIT?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Unintended Guns

Can you ban heroin use? Given that US federal law for being caught with a mere pound of heroin is life in prison yet more than a half-million people in the US have used heroin in the past year, I'd say either no or that the cost of doing so would be intolerably high (for example, killing on-the-spot anyone even suspected of either buying, selling or possessing the drug without due process might work, but that cost would be awfully high and probably intolerable). And heroin use is probably not protected by the constitution.

Can you ban AR-15s? Just like heroin, you can pass legislation to do so, but in reality, no, you really can't. Because unlike heroin, AR-15s are easy to make. Really easy. Unfortunately, because of fear of anti-AR-15 legislation, there is now a burgeoning underground market for the equipment to make critical AR-15 components:
But even fears of such legislation have lead gun owners to stock up on guns and ammunition after every mass shooting in recent history. And now a newer trend has emerged in the days since Omar Mateen killed 49 people with a handgun and a Sig Sauer MCX rifle: sales are spiking for the equipment and materials used by DIY gunsmiths to make their own, fully-functional, semi-automatic weapons. 
Using power tools, chunks of aluminum, and cheap, consumer-grade digital gadgets, those firearm-focused members of the maker movement fabricate homemade weapons like AR-15s and AR-10s that skirt all regulation and would be untraceable in some imagined, future crackdown in which the government were to seize registered weapons. “People are hopping off the mainstream train and accepting an underground dissident mentality when it comes to guns,” says Cody Wilson, the founder of the Austin, Texas-based DIY gun group Defense Distributed. “They’re making the connection: If [an AR-15 ban] is enacted, I can get this machine and make one anyway.”
Since the fall of 2014, Defense Distributed has sold approximately three thousand of the $1,500 devices it calls the Ghost Gunner, a computer-controlled, one-foot cubed milling machine designed to let anyone carve their own aluminum body of an AR-15 at home. Since all other parts of the gun can be bought without any regulation, the result is a lethal weapon that’s free from background checks, waiting periods, serial numbers, or any other government involvement.
On a typical day, Defense Distributed sells four or five of its gun-making machines, according to Wilson. But on the day after the Orlando gun massacre, it sold seven. The second day after the killings, as Democratic senators were filibustering, it sold 11. In all, Defense Distributed’s total revenue has jumped from around $30,000 a week to more than $50,000 last week, the most sales it’s seen since the hype around the Ghost Gunner’s initial launch 20 months ago.
Those are basically cheap CNC mills that are the same as what's used to machine every metal prototype part in the world, so those can't be banned without bringing new product innovation all over the world to a complete halt.

So congratulations anti-gun people. You have now guaranteed that not only can the AR-15 never be eradicated (and it never could've been), you've also guaranteed that any criminal and/or would be terrorist can make an untraceable AR-15 cheaply and easily no matter what future legislation is enacted.

I'm guessing that's a good example of an unintended consequence.

Friday, June 17, 2016

I Guess I'm Callous

I was shaken when the aircraft slammed into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. It thrust the world into a unknown state. Were more big attacks coming? What was our reaction going to be? Was it going to dramatically alter our well-being and lifestyle? What was it going to take for New York to recover? And, yeah, I felt bad for the dead and their families and friends.

I no longer feel bad for the dead from mass shootings (and the families and friends). That's at least partly because I've been desensitized. And partly because, well, I don't have time to feel bad for everyone that dies.

Approximately 7,000 people die in the United States each day from all causes. Each day, several dozen people are murdered. Twice as many are wounded from attempted murder each day.

Forty-nine people were killed in a nightclub in Orlando. I don't have it in me to feel more for them than the other 7,000 people who died that day or the other dozens of anonymous people who were murdered across the country that day. The dead in Orlando don't feel more special to me. I don't know why I don't feel more since they apparently do feel more special to virtually everybody else in the entire country.

It's interesting to look at the reactions of others from my detached state. The two big hot button issues that were pressed by the Orlando shooting are the role of Islam in events such as these and the role of gun control or the lack thereof.

Within seconds (maybe minutes) of the news breaking, people began to use the event to further their agendas in these areas. Others were saying things like, "how can you use a tragedy like this to further a political agenda?" My response is that there's no better time. If you have a weak or subjective position, using a time when people are all upset and emotional is by far the best time to advance your agenda because they're not thinking straight.

Let's start with guns and gun control. On one hand, the guy put a lot of bullets into a lot of people with a gun, so those in favor of control can use this incident to claim that gun control is critically important. And if we refuse to get rid of all guns and bullets, then let's at least get rid of those particularly scary looking guns like the AR-15 that was used at the Orlando nightclub. And after such an incident is a really great time to make such an argument because objectively, it makes no sense whatsoever; consider the following table (via Marginal Revolution):


Only 248 of 11,961 murders were perpetrated using rifles (plus some fraction of "type not stated") and that includes "assault" rifles like the AR-15. Banning assault rifles will simply make no noticeable difference at all in the number of gun murders and it's a foolish thing to focus on if reducing murder is the goal. But if banning AR-15s is your thing, then using this incident and people's emotional response is a really good idea.

On the other side (the anti-gun control side), we have people noting that the nightclub was a gun free zone. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that having drinking establishments be "gun-free" might actually be a good idea since people don't always make the best decisions when drunk and some people are quite violent under the influence. Some have suggested the compromise that non-drinking folks should be allowed to carry in drinking establishments and that seems at least a little more reasonable to me. Yet it's not clear it would've made much of a difference. There was an armed security guard at the nightclub and he didn't even slow the gunman down. These things are going to continue to happen and there's not much that can be done to stop them.

Now, onto Islam. Omar Mateen was crazy, completely deranged, totally nuts. To me, that's the fundamental explanation of why he did the totally insane thing of shooting up a nightclub. To claim this was caused by Islam seems misguided to me. To claim that restricting immigration would prevent stuff like this is even weaker given that he was a U.S. born citizen. At best, restricting immigration now might prevent something like this in several decades.

On the other hand, I don't think Islam is quite completely free of culpability.

It is true that vast swaths of Christianity are at least uncomfortable with homosexuality. And it's also true that some christian clergy in the United States have called for killing homosexuals. But there are more than a half-million clergy in the United States and only a tiny handful are that extreme and out of a half-million people some are statistically going to be crazy. The rest of those uncomfortable with homosexuality are more the "hate the sin, love the sinner" types or at least don't go around calling for the execution of gays.

Compare that to the fact that 100 million people live in Muslim countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. In other words, killing gays is simply much more mainstream in the Muslim world than in countries that are predominantly Christian.

So if you're a deranged lunatic who happens to be Muslim, the voices whispering in your head from all over the world are kinda gonna be egging you on to kill gay people instead of holding you back. That's a problem, perhaps one with no solution, but I can't ignore the fact that people immigrating from those countries have been exposed to and grown up in an environment that I consider to be relatively barbaric. I don't find that thought to be comforting.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Too Busy to be Decadent

Via BrothersJudd we learn that kids these days take fewer risks than previous generations:
The troubles with kids these days ... are not as common as they used to be. U.S. teens are having a lot less sex, they are drinking and using drugs less often, and they aren't smoking as much, according a government survey of risky youth behaviors. 
"I think you can call this the cautious generation," said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The cautious generation? Yeah, right. The article puts forward what I think is a more likely hypothesis towards the bottom:
One possibility, Albert said: "It may be that parking at Lookout Point has given way to texting from your mom's living room couch," he said. 
In the new survey, about 42 percent said they played video or computer games or used a computer for something that was not school work for more than three hours per day on an average school day.
Boredom has always been a major factor behind smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. At least that was true for my generation. And boredom has been mostly obliterated by the Internet, social media, and the plethora of online entertainment. Kids simply don't have time and motivation for the illegal and immoral activities of old.

A hilarious take on this is presented in Millennials Have Discovered 'Going Out' Sucks (WARNING: LOTS OF OBSCENITIES). Here's an excerpt:
But really, what this completely real trend the Post has identified shows is that millennials have cracked the code. For most of human history, young people have spent a good chunk of their lives going "out," which mainly meant getting f-----d up on mead or some mildly poisonous herb, then having sex with a stranger, waking up in a field, or both. Youths are always derided for this by the older generations, who claim that in their day the herbs were less poisonous and the outdoor coitus less brazen. [...] 
But millennials—if you believe the Post, and why wouldn't you?—are skipping past all that ...
 The article concludes with:
You know what's great? Sitting around and watching TV. Have you tried it? You get to wear comfortable clothes, summon whatever food you want via phone and eat it with your hands, go to bed when you choose—for most of the humans who have ever lived, this generation's typical night in represents an impossible pinnacle of luxury. People used to worry about stuff like drought, famine, and a new band of men with swords riding into town. Don't underestimate the simple luxuries of a glass of wine, a roof overhead, and a screen that can show you anything you can imagine.
Too True That. Too True.

Of course, if nobody goes out and drinks excessive mead and has sex, might this be not only the cautious generation but also the last generation?

Friday, June 10, 2016

What's an Animal to Do...

...when desperate?

Find a human to save you, of course!
An injured bull elephant named Ben made his way to the Bumi Hills Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe, in what appears to be a search for help.

The staff at Bumi Hills were very surprised to see Ben, as it is not common for elephants to walk right up to human homes.

Unfortunately, Ben wasn't just popping in to say hello.

Manager Nick Milne realized the 30-year-old elephant was limping and appeared to be severely wounded. [...]

The staff tranquilized Ben and found a deep wound in his shoulder, likely from a poacher's bullet, as well as two more bullet holes in one of his ears.
They were able to clean and disinfect Ben's injuries, and he is now healing on the property, outfitted with a tracking device so the foundation can monitor his improvement.
With the help of his human friends, Ben was lucky to have survived two attacks on his life.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Concentrating the Mind

Germany Charges 4 Syrians in Plot to Attack Düsseldorf

BERLIN — The German police arrested three Syrians on Thursday who are suspected of traveling to Europe on behalf of the Islamic State to attack a popular district of the western city of Düsseldorf, federal prosecutors said.

A fourth man, also a Syrian citizen who is in custody in France, was charged with supporting the plot. The plan involved suicide bombings, as well as attacks with firearms and explosives, the prosecutors said.



At least two of the suspects entered Germany during last year’s influx of refugees, the prosecutors said. German news media reported that two of the men had been living in refugee shelters and at least one had submitted an application for asylum.



Prosecutors said Saleh A. and Hamza C. joined the Islamic State in early 2014 in Syria, where they were ordered by leaders of the organization to carry out an attack in an area of Düsseldorf that is packed with bars and cafes and is popular with residents and partying tourists.

Like all the other horrors in the seemingly endless abattoir that is Islamism, the Paris attacks, San Bernardino, and Brussels, provoked widespread outrage.

While unsurprising, it is nonetheless striking how much more focussed that outrage becomes when the threat is practically in one's neighborhood. In the picture below, the Altstadt, the intended target, is directly to the right of the Rhine River freighter.


The Altstadt is perfect for tourists and residents. Picturesque. Lots of restaurants, stores and bars. Always crowded if the weather isn't beastly.

I guess that makes it perfect for Allah's faithful murderers, too.

Four friends of ours live there. Less than a mile from our apartment, we go there frequently. So while the litany of other atrocities is immersed in a vague, blurry buffer, no such comfort is on offer here. It is all too easy to imagine a wonderful area I know well turned into a charnel house.

By the Religion of Peace™.

This reminded me of a post from more than six years ago, Enhanced Condemnation:

No small amount of writing, and plenty of writers, have made the bold claim that torture is always, irrevocably, wrong, and that those who sanction it are, by definition, moral monsters. Oddly, they take this bold stand without coming to terms with their subject, giving a nod to context, or recognizing that the sin of commission must be assessed against the sin of omission.

What they arrive at is a position with precisely the same supposed lofty superiority of pacifism, while completely failing to understand how such blanket condemnations, just like pacifism, are completely amoral.

In the comments on my post, and in the links, I was accused of moral deficiency by suggesting that blanket condemnations of "torture" (scare quotes, because the term has all the definitional rigor of "art") are facile moral preening.

Having captured these suspects, I wonder how much "sweating" of other suspects was involved. Just as I wonder how much some people — relatives of the victims, perhaps — wish a bit more "sweating" had happened before the Brussels atrocity.

Interesting how one's view on things might change with a bit of skin in the game.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Science, Faith and Little Gods

In my opinion, many relevant questions and problems are so complex, often containing mountains of conflicting, orthogonal, and only partially relevant information, that no human or group of humans can or will ever be able to understand the problems, much less "solve" them. One large class of such problems are those which involve the interaction of science (especially "soft" sciences like social science and the "dismal science" that is economics) with politics/policy. Even if the science produces knowledge with a high degree of accuracy and confidence, how that knowledge affects the 7+ billion people inhabiting earth and how to optimize policy to take into account their dreams, desires, preferences and fears is an insurmountably difficult task.

I often cringe when I hear folks say things like, "because scientists/economists/experts say so, we should enact certain policies and anybody who disagrees is clearly stupid, ignorant and/or a denier of science." One of the most famous quotes along those lines is by Richard Dawkins:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).
Science has been used to amass the evidence and knowledge upon which theories of evolution have been built. Those theories in turn, are works in progress, like most scientific knowledge, and will continue to be updated and refined over time. Evolution is a good example of the scientific method in action and may even be closely related to the actual explanation of the trajectory of the biosphere during the existence of life on this planet. But that isn't enough for Dawkins - I'm required to "believe in" evolution and I simply don't.

Now I want to introduce a term (from dictionary.com):
scientism/ˈsaɪənˌtɪzəm/
noun
the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation
I'm also going to add my (non-standard) definition and assume when I use the word below that I'm referring to this definition:
the belief that a large percentage of all personal and collective decisions should be based on science and/or analyses of empirical evidence
Note that the two definitions are not in conflict.

Evolution provides a good example. It's science to build theories like evolution. It's scientism to insist that people "believe in" the theory or even that this particular theory ought to be taught in schools. I realize that the latter half of the previous sentence is a very contentious statement, but ask yourself this: given that only a tiny fraction of useful science is taught in school (there's simply not enough time to teach it all), why is it so important that that particular bit of science be taught to the exclusion of something else? And note I'm not talking about DNA, RNA, genetic encoding of information and inheritance, and all of the other knowledge that's loosely related to evolution, I'm only talking about evolution, which, by itself, really isn't particularly useful for much of anything at all.

It's science to explore the relationship between the diffusion of various isotopes of oxygen and the diffusion of heat in ice cores from Antarctica in order to be able to put error bars on the historical temperature record in that locale. It's scientism to create laws that restrict people from discussing skepticism regarding the impact of global warming. It's also scientism to tell people how to live in order to reduce CO2 emissions.

It's science to understand genetic inheritance via DNA. It's scientism to decide to create a eugenics program in order to improve human genetics as has been done in the past.

It's science (sort of) to create models that retroactively can predict economic trends and events. It's scientism to craft policies with wide impact based on those models.

In other words, scientism is a quasi-religious view that takes scientific knowledge and strives to make it the basis of societal organization. Remember those dreams, desires, preferences, and fears I mentioned above? Nuh uh, not allowed or at least heavily discounted by scientismists (those that use scientism) as the basis for their outlook. Of course, I rather suspect that whatever the scientismists' preferences are just happen to align with that which they happen learn from science.

Since these problems are complex beyond human capacity for comprehension, scientism can be thought of as sort of a "folk-science" that relies on networks of people with similar beliefs:
There are many religious views that are not the product of common-sense ways of seeing the world. Consider the story of Adam and Eve, or the virgin birth of Christ, or Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse. These are not the product of innate biases. They are learned, and, more surprisingly, they are learned in a special way. 
To come to accept such religious narratives is not like learning that grass is green or that stoves can be hot; it is not like picking up stereotypes or customs or social rules. Instead, these narratives are acquired through the testimony of others, from parents or peers or religious authorities. Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but not a theological leap of faith. Rather, a leap in the mundane sense that you must trust the people who are testifying to their truth. [...] 
Many religious narratives are believed without even being understood. People will often assert religious claims with confidence—there exists a God, he listens to my prayers, I will go to Heaven when I die—but with little understanding, or even interest, in the details. The sociologist Alan Wolfe observes that “evangelical believers are sometimes hard pressed to explain exactly what, doctrinally speaking, their faith is,” and goes on to note that “These are people who believe, often passionately, in God, even if they cannot tell others all that much about the God in which they believe.” 
People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others—at least those who belong to our family and community—should accept them as well. 
None of this is special to religion. Researchers have studied those who have strong opinions about political issues and found that they often literally don’t know what they are talking about. Many people who take positions on cap and trade, for instance, have no idea what cap and trade is. Similarly, many of those who will insist that America spends too much, or too little, on foreign aid, often don’t know how much actually is spent, as either an absolute amount or proportion of GDP. These political positions are also credences, and one who holds them is just like someone who insists that the Ten Commandments should be the bedrock of morality, but can’t list more than three or four of them. [...] 
Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well. Some people reading this will say they believe in natural selection, but not all will be able to explain how natural selection works. (As an example, how does this theory explain the evolution of the eye?) It turns out that those who assert the truth of natural selection are often unable to define it, or, worse, have it confused with some long-rejected pre-Darwinian notion that animals naturally improve over time.

But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.

Given my day job, I know something about psychology and associated sciences, but if you press me on the details of climate change, or the evidence about vaccines and autism, I’m at a loss. I believe that global warming is a serious problem and that vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.

It is because I trust the scientists.
And there's the rub. I'm an extremely untrusting person and I don't trust scientists either. I especially don't trust people advocating for various policies and as soon as a scientist or group of scientists do that, I simply don't trust anything they say. In other words, I have no "faith" in them.

That's not to say I don't ever rely on experts. As Arnold Kling points out, we are all hugely dependent on expertise in this day and age:
I have faith in experts. Every time I go to the store, I am showing faith in the experts who design, manufacture, and ship products. 
Every time I use the services of an accountant, an attorney, or a dentist, I am showing faith in their expertise. Every time I donate to a charity, I am showing faith in the expertise of the organization to use my contributions effectively. 
In fact, I would say that our dependence on experts has never been greater. It might seem romantic to live without experts and instead to rely solely on your own instinct and know-how, but such a life would be primitive.
Once again, the problem is when expertise is linked to politics and power:
Expertise becomes problematic when it is linked to power. First, it creates a problem for democratic governance. The elected officials who are accountable to voters lack the competence to make well-informed decisions. And, the experts to whom legislators cede authority are unelected. The citizens who are affected by the decisions of these experts have no input into their selection, evaluation, or removal. 
A second problem with linking expertise to power is that it diminishes the diversity and competitive pressure faced by the experts. 
A key difference between experts in the private sector and experts in the government sector is that the latter have monopoly power, ultimately backed by force. The power of government experts is concentrated and unchecked (or at best checked very poorly), whereas the power of experts in the private sector is constrained by competition and checked by choice. Private organizations have to satisfy the needs of their constituents in order to survive. Ultimately, private experts have to respect the dignity of the individual, because the individual has the freedom to ignore the expert.
Because of the power, I call scientismists with access to political power "Little Gods." Most have at least a bit of a "Savior Complex," that is the need to change society to help people. That sounds like a good thing but there are some inherent problems with it. The first problem is that there is a fine line between he who helps people who may not even be particularly interested in that help and a meddlesome busybody. But the main problem is that they are playing god.

There is no policy ever that helps everybody. There are always winners and losers with every change and the Little God therefore actively creates losers. The Little God decides that hurting one person or group to help another is worth it and that is a position of great responsibility and power - in other words, the power of a Little God.

When they do so "Because Science!" they've turned science completely into a religion in service of being a Little God.

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Heart Warming Story for the Entire Family

This reminds me of the Sokal hoax:

Two California teenagers who recently visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art were less than impressed by some of the exhibits and wondered if they could do better.

And thus a scheme was hatched: They placed a pair of eyeglasses on the floor, stood back and watched as, within minutes, visitors regarded their prank as a work of art, with some even taking photos of the fake installation.

Maybe there's hope for the yoots of today, after all.