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Friday, October 31, 2014

Progressivism in a Paragraph

Without a hint of irony, progressives, fundamentalists to the core, excoriate those who believe in other religions while being completely blind to their own:

If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter. Lenin believed this after reading Das Kapital, and consistently taught that if a just, peaceful, happy, free, virtuous society could be created by the means he advocated, then the end justified any methods that needed to be used, literally any.

For abundant proof: Here. And here.

Or just wade through the merde that is any comment thread on any progressive blog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Probably Trending Upwards

My wife claimed that school shootings in the United States are on the rise and she's right [source]:

I was surprised because I had last looked at this in 2002, three years after the Columbine incident, and at that point there was clearly no statistical trend.  Even throwing out the outliers, there probably is one now.

But, before we freak out collectively and totally, remember that there are nearly 50 million students in the United States, making the probability of dying in a school shooting less than one-in-a-million for a student in a given year.

Now Tell Us How You Really Feel

From a Q&A about "The Bell Curve" on its 20th anniversary with author Charles Murray:
Reflecting on the legacy of “The Bell Curve,” what stands out to you? 
...The reaction to “The Bell Curve” exposed a profound corruption of the social sciences that has prevailed since the 1960s. “The Bell Curve” is a relentlessly moderate book — both in its use of evidence and in its tone — and yet it was excoriated in remarkably personal and vicious ways, sometimes by eminent academicians who knew very well they were lying. Why? Because the social sciences have been in the grip of a political orthodoxy that has had only the most tenuous connection with empirical reality, and too many social scientists think that threats to the orthodoxy should be suppressed by any means necessary. Corruption is the only word for it. 
Now that I’ve said that, I’m also thinking of all the other social scientists who have come up to me over the years and told me what a wonderful book “The Bell Curve” is. But they never said it publicly. So corruption is one thing that ails the social sciences. Cowardice is another. [emphasis added]
Well, after all, social science is not rocket science. I found the whole interview interesting.

Oh Good! Another Excuse... do what I would've done anyway - eat a lot of chocolate:
Science edged closer on Sunday to showing that an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Is It True?

Every once in a while I read some mainstream blurb that I find truly incomprehensible and because it's mainstream, shows me just how out-of-touch I am sitting here in my little bubble.  Here's the latest such blurb from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton:
Don't let anybody tell you that it's corporations and businesses that create jobs. You know that old theory, trickle-down economics. That has been tried, that has failed. It has failed rather spectacularly. One of the things my husband says when people ask him what he brought to Washington, he says I brought arithmetic.
So do businesses really not create jobs when they decide to hire additional employees?  If so, what would you call the process of hiring additional employees? If there were no businesses, would there be more jobs than there are now? What does trickle-down economics have to do with that anyway? Is it even possible to "try" a theory? For example, would it make sense to "try" the theory of evolution and, if so, how would you do that? When asked what he brought to Washington, does Bill really answer, "My wife brought arithmetic...?" Is that not a nonsensical response to the question?

She's going to be the next President of the United States and leader of the world and I can't figure out what the hell she's talking about.  Help me out here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Looks that way to me

In a column earlier this year titled  Days of Future Past  Jonah Goldberg included this:
All around the world, authoritarianism of one bent or another is in vogue. From Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the Communist party’s China, statism is an idea whose time has come, again. “Over the past few months,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.”

Of course, the yearning for authoritarianism is ancient. I would argue that it is baked into the human condition, which is why it must be constantly fought. But even this latest outbreak did not just emerge ex nihilo over the last few months. The heavy intellectual work has been done in plain view for years (indeed, I offer something of a survey of such impulses in my 2008 book Liberal Fascism). How many columns has Thomas Friedman written extolling the superiority of the Chinese way? “There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” Friedman has written, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

How many times has Barack Obama, Friedman’s most influential reader, invoked China’s economic planning as something we need to emulate? How many remoras of the Leviathan have offered similar encomiums to statism? “The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model — so successful in the 20th century — is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century,” declared former SEIU president Andy Stern in the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

Again, this is nothing new. Similar sentences were written countless times in the 20th century, insisting that the free-market fundamentalism of the 19th century was being thrown onto the same trash heap. Anne Morrow Lindbergh famously coined the phrase “wave of the future” to describe the inevitability of collectivism in 1940. The lesson here is not that history proved them wrong, because history doesn’t do anything. They were proved wrong because people proved them wrong.

That is the lesson to take away: The wave of the future isn’t a wave at all, but an eternal tide that champions of freedom must fight against, constantly. For if they stop, even briefly, the tide will push them back to the shores of the natural human condition, and the state of nature is not liberal-democratic capitalism but tribal, thuggish authoritarianism. On this point Orban was absolutely right. “The point of the future is that anything can happen,” he said. “That means it could easily be that our time will come.”
In another column title  Freedom  he made the point: 
It’s a little bizarre how the Left has always conflated statism with modernity and progress. The idea that rulers — be they chieftains, kings, priests, politburos, or wonkish bureaucrats — are enlightened or smart enough to tell others how to live is older than the written word. And the idea that someone stronger, with better weapons, has the right to take what is yours predates man’s discovery of fire by millennia. And yet, we’re always told that the latest rationalization for increased state power is the “wave of the future.”

That phrase, “the wave of the future,” became famous thanks to a 1940 essay by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She argued that the time of liberal democratic capitalism was drawing to a close and the smart money was on statism of one flavor or another — fascism, Communism, socialism, etc. What was lost on her, and millions of others, was that this wasn’t progress toward the new, but regression to the past. These “waves of the future” were simply gussied-up tribalisms, anachronisms made gaudy with the trappings of modernity, like a gibbon in a spacesuit.

The only truly new political idea in the last couple thousand years is this libertarian idea, broadly understood. The revolution wrought by John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and the Founding Fathers is the only real revolution going. And it’s still unfolding. (emphasis mine)

Blogger Bird Dog at Maggie's Farm  excerpted the following from Klaven  
Whatever its pretensions, whatever its claims, statism — progressivism, leftism, socialism — is based on the idea that a small elite intelligentsia can run your life better than you can. They know how to spend your money. They know how to educate your children. They know how to run your health care. They know how to protect you from yourself.

You do not have to talk to a statist very long before he will profess an intense dislike, distrust and even fear of ordinary people. Ordinary people spend money on what they want (TV’s restaurants and cars) rather than what the elite know they ought to want (aluminum foil climate change reversers). Ordinary people teach their children that God created the world rather than a random pattern of mathematic realities that came into being through another random pattern that came…  well, the elite know: it’s random patterns all the way down! Ordinary people will give jobs and business to those who earn them rather than those the elite, in their greater understanding, know are historically deserving because of past oppression. And so on.

Now, of course, with the very elite of the elite running the country, we find that — what do you know? — this statism dodge doesn’t really work all that well. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that the statist premise is wrong. In fact, ordinary people left at liberty to do as they will are actually better at running their lives and businesses and country than the geniuses in Washington. Central planning works great in the imaginations of the elite, but in the real world…  not so much.

And the second problem is that the elite are stupid. No, really. They’re educated and sophisticated and they dress well and speak well. They may even have high IQs. But in the immortal words of Forrest Gump’s mother: “Stupid is as stupid does.” And the elite are stupid.

 Even though I have plenty of friends who would consider themselves part of the elite, the ideas expressed above nail it!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fragile knowledge

In an interesting article published last year, social psychologist Roy Baumeister addressed the question of free will.  After making a few clarifications he introduced a point made by Phillip Anderson: 
 There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
Different sciences discover different kinds of causes. Phillip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, explained this beautifully several decades ago in a brief article titled “More is different.” Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture.

As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life. These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.

This reminds me of a point made in a TV interview by the late Richard Feynman back in the early 1980s.  His point was that most people have fragile knowledge. They do not know under what conditions some ideas are valid and when they are not, analogous to some mathematical techniques being applicable in limited domains.  They also don't know how ideas in general or in specific different fields relate to each other.  He also added the there were many pseudo-experts that were practising scientism rather than science.

Mr. Baumeister continues:
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.

What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
Returning to the matter of free will, he concludes:
Self-control counts as a kind of freedom because it begins with not acting on every impulse. The simple brain acts whenever something triggers a response: A hungry creature sees food and eats it. The most recently evolved parts of the human brain have an extensive mechanism for overriding those impulses, which enables us to reject food when we’re hungry, whether it’s because we’re dieting, vegetarian, keeping kosher, or mistrustful of the food. Self-control furnishes the possibility of acting from rational principles rather than acting on impulse.

The use of abstract ideas such as moral principles to guide action takes us far beyond anything that you will find in a physics or chemistry textbook, and so we are free in the sense of emergence, of going beyond simpler forms of causality. Again, we cannot break the laws of physics, but we can act in ways that add new causes that go far beyond physical causation. No electron understands the Golden Rule, and indeed an exhaustive study of any given atom will furnish no clue as to whether it is part of a person who is obeying or disobeying that rule. The economic laws of supply and demand are genuine causes, but they cannot be reduced to or fully explained by chemical reactions. Understanding free will in this way allows us to reconcile the popular understanding of free will as making choices with our scientific understanding of the world.

Reiterating an earlier point:  "Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture."  The increasing complexity as one moves up that ladder has important implications in the policy arena.  As someone said:
It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering.  And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?" 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Congrats to India

India now has a satellite orbiting Mars:
India put a satellite into Mars orbit early Wednesday, the only nation to have done so on a maiden voyage and the first in Asia to reach the red planet.
 And unbelievably inexpensively too!
Mangalyaan, Hindi for Mars craft, cost $74 million ... [Prime Minister] Modi boasted in June that India had spent less than Hollywood had on producing the film “Gravity” to reach the red planet.
A second cost comparison is that $74 million could buy you (or them) about 50 cruise missiles.  The per mile cost is stunningly inexpensive; as Tyler Cowen points out, the mission was cheaper per mile than a cab ride in Delhi.

It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering.  And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?"

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Brouhaha in a Bottle

As is not atypical for me, I'm going to rush in where angels fear to tread and write about the somewhat recent uproar over a Forbes column by Bill Frezza titled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities."  I'd love to provide a link to the article, but I can't. Why?  Because shortly after it appeared, "[t]he column was almost immediately jerked from the site, and Frezza, who has written for Forbes since 2011, was summarily fired."  So the best I can do is provide a link to a different site that has apparently kept Frezza's column's contents around in order to criticize it.

I'm writing about this because Frezza is "president of the alumni house corporation of [his] MIT fraternity" and since I went to MIT and was in a fraternity (the coolest one ever, of course!), the topic is somewhat near and dear to my heart.

Frezza's title is clearly not the most politically correct thing ever written.  It's also not quite accurate. The gravest threat to fraternities is the problem that they are comprised of young, adult(ish) males who, more than occasionally, do really, really stupid things, as they have since the emergence of our species (and probably long before).  However, that problem can only be fixed by either eliminating fraternities, which would just mean the young males would just go elsewhere to be stupid, or eliminating males entirely, which might be bad for the species.

Frezza may, however, have correctly identified drunken females as a threat to fraternities, even if not the primary threat.  For example,
A recent incident at MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha chapter in which a drunk female student apparently danced her way out of a window has, once again, resulted in a clamp-down on all fraternity parties.
Frezza's advice is, unsurprisingly, very, very fraternity-centric. After all, that's his job.  His advice includes things like:

  • Don't let male or female drunks into a party.
  • If someone at a party seems drunk and out-of-control, ask them to leave, pay for a cab to take them home, and if they refuse to leave, call the campus police to escort them away.
  • "Never, ever take a drunk female guest to your bedroom."
  • "Do not let a drunk brother take a drunk female to his bedroom."
Sounds like sound advice to me.  In fact, when I read his piece, I didn't notice any advice that I wouldn't advise my old frat to follow as well.

However, it didn't sound like sound advice to the folks who complained to Forbes and caused Frezza to be fired. For example, Austin Hess, the editor of MIT's student newspaper, The Tech, minced no words in responding:
Frezza’s sentiments are certainly not original — thinly veiled victim blaming is pervasive from students to politicians and sadly common among both men and women. What is far more troubling, however, is that he presents almost without pretense the fact that he cares far more about preventing the dissolution of his fraternity than preventing whatever sort of accident or incident that would cause such an outcome. [...]
An actual line: “Although we were once reprimanded for turning away a drunk female student who ultimately required an ambulance when she passed out on our sidewalk, it would have gone a lot worse for us had she collapsed inside.”
Portraying it this way, it seems that Austin also doesn't much care about "preventing whatever sort of accident or incident that would cause such an outcome."  Clearly he should be calling for changing the rules to NOT screw the fraternity if a drunken woman passes out on the premises since that would likely be better than her passing out on the street.  Then she wouldn't have been turned away.
I am somewhat glad the piece was published, after all, because it provides a grotesque caricature of the entrenched proponents of sexism more poignantly than any Onion article.
To me, the sentence above provides a grotesque caricature of "right thinking" and therefore, non-thinking, people.
But the fact that Frezza ever became the alumni president of Chi Phi begs troubling questions. 
Is Frezza’s concern for preventing suspension over preventing rape or fatal accidents shared by others in the MIT fraternity system?
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. To me, Frezza's advice is very, very focused on preventing rape, sexual assault, unwanted advances, regret the morning after, and so forth. Let me repeat his advice: don't let drunks in, kick out-of-control drunk people out, don't take drunk girls to your room, don't let drunk brothers take girls to their rooms. Prevent rape, prevent suspension. Pretty straightforward.

Now let's backtrack and consider the title of The Tech article: "Can fraternities be feminist?"
Is it unreasonable to hope that fraternities adopt a strong stance — internally and externally — in favor of feminism? Not merely in platitudes and public statements, but in real, measurable actions?
Yes, it's very unreasonable, in my opinion. Organizations have primary missions and need to focus on those and leave other missions to their individual members and other organizations.  For example, the NRA doesn't take in homeless cats, the Bonsai Club doesn't host race car rallies, the Harry Potter Club doesn't maintain a fleet of yachts, etc. And none of those organizations are feminist either, though many of their individual members probably are. It is unreasonable for one of a fraternity's primary missions to be a feminist organization. Just keeping their members safe, doing well in school, and out of trouble is more than a sufficiently large agenda for fraternities.

I'm also lost as to which parts of Frezza's advice are sexist anyway? Why is worrying about possible events that may well cause suspension and dissolution of a fraternity sexist? Why is it bad or sexist to not take drunk girls to your room?  Why is it bad or sexist to not let drunks in the door (the message seems clear to me - you want to come to our party? Then don't come drunk - and that's a very positive message)? Why is it bad or sexist for an organization to make survival a top priority. Why is it the job of a fraternity to ensure that other people don't get drunk when not on its premises? Why is it the job of a fraternity to take care of people who got drunk illegally not on its premises? Why doesn't the author of The Tech article drive around in his car on weekend nights looking for drunken students in order to rescue them?  Why isn't it his job?

I have so many questions that my head is spinning (and no, I'm not drunk). I've never been so confused as I am by the reactions to Frezza and his article.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ultimate Insurance

There have been recent breaches of White House security and the New York Times notes that:
...even opposition lawmakers who have spent the last six years fighting his every initiative have expressed deep worry for his security.
As an example of such an opposition lawmaker:
“The American people want to know: Is the president safe?” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican committee chairman who has made it his mission to investigate all sorts of Obama administration missteps, solemnly intoned as he opened a hearing into the lapses on Tuesday.
The Times article's author seems to find it unlikely that the feelings are genuine: would not be all that surprising if Mr. Obama were a little wary of all the professed sympathy.
But whether or not you think Republicans would normally secretly (or overtly) wish for the President to be assassinated, you have to remember that Obama has something no liberal president has ever had, an insurance policy so powerful and so comprehensive, that no sane person (and/or Republican) would ever consider, even for a nanosecond, intentionally killing Obama.  And that something can be summed up in one word: Biden.