Sunday, January 30, 2005

Kerry Redux

I caught some of John Kerry on Meet The Press this AM and was surprised by the strength of the aversive response induced. All those annoying affectations that I managed to ignore during the campaign - the compulsive double talk, the rhetorical bloat, the evasion - now seemed intensely repellent. Almost as bad as trying to watch Condeleeza Rice on ABC. It sort of helps me understand how the American people could have made such a catastrophic mistake in re-electing - excuse me - electing George Bush.

Please Democratic Party, don't do this again. Not Kerry, not Hillary, and not anyone like them. And not Shrum.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Gregg Easterbrook has up a new review of Jared Diamonds "Collapse." He is fulsome in his praise but wants to reject the conclusions. Unfortunately for Greggie, his example merely documents his own confusion.

Diamond's analysis discounts culture and human thought as forces in history; culture, especially, is seen as a side effect of environment. The big problem with this view is explaining why China -- which around the year 1000 was significantly ahead of Europe in development, and possessed similar advantages in animals and plants -- fell behind. This happened, Diamond says, because China adopted a single-ruler society that banned change. True, but how did environment or animal husbandry dictate this? China's embrace of a change-resistant society was a cultural phenomenon. During the same period China was adopting centrally regimented life, Europe was roiled by the idea of individualism. Individualism proved a potent force, a source of power, invention and motivation

Diamond's theme, though, is that geography is destiny, and he is very clear about how Europe's fragmented geography dictated its fragmented polity, which gave rise to an environment where competing ideas could be tried. Easterbrook's example actually illustrates Diamond's point, though of course chance (and perhaps culture) plays a role as well. China had enormous advantages in opportunity to discover the new world, and it only failed because the accident of its geography made centralized rule all but inevitable.

That is the argument he needs to (but fails to) counter.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

What Bush has Wrought

Tom Friedman is still in recovery mode from his peace through mass murder vision, but his new Op-Ed Column in the NYT has some good bits. One of my favorites:

Both girls I interviewed wore veils and one also wore a full Afghan-like head-to-toe covering; one was of Egyptian parents, the other of Tunisian parents, but both were born and raised in France. What did I learn from them? That they got all their news from Al Jazeera TV, because they did not believe French TV, that the person they admired most in the world was Osama bin Laden, because he was defending Islam, that suicide "martyrdom" was justified because there was no greater glory than dying in defense of Islam, that they saw themselves as Muslims first and French citizens last, and that all their friends felt pretty much the same.

If this attitude should become prevalent in the huge French Muslim community, it's hard to see much alternative to a bitter civil war resulting in tragedy for France and catastrophe or annihilation for the French Muslims. I wonder how things stand in the US? Thanks to George Bush, it certainly looks like Osama has gotten a start on his war of civilizations. We have already had a small taste of the loss of liberty this will entail for ourselves.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Where do we get these losers?

I just saw Congressman Rham Emanuel get humiliated on Meet the Press. Tim Russert asked him *The Question*: "Knowing what we now know about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would you vote for the war..." and the sorry blankety-blank weaseled, not once, but repeatedly. What the hell is his problem, aside from looking like Anderson Cooper's slightly more effeminate sibling? Why would anyone in their right mind still think thts war was a good idea? Especially a Democrat?

Next Timmy beat him over the head with some Clinton quotes on a "looming Social Security crisis." Once again, our sorry excuse for a spokeman - excuse me, spokesperson - weaseled repeatedly. Can't we find somebody with more balls, like, say, Nancy Pelosi, to represent us in this fight?

Social Security is a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, and, so far at least, we haven't shown much.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Religious Science

I recently wasted a good part of two days in fruitless argument with another blogger. The subject of the argument was a speech by the science fiction writer Michael Crichton, in which he cited SETI and global warming, together with some other once popular but now discredited ideas as examples of "consensus science," which he called not science but religion. More broadly, he claimed that believing something untested was religion not science.

Anyway, with that as prolog, I was very interested to see this article in the NYT, in which several scientists answer the question "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" A lot of the usual suspects showed up - god exists, god doesn't exist, true love exists and rats have feelings. A few that caught my eye were:

Roger Shank

...I do not believe that people are capable of rational thought when it comes to making decisions in their own lives. People believe they are behaving rationally and have thought things out, of course, but when major decisions are made - who to marry, where to live, what career to pursue, what college to attend, people's minds simply cannot cope with the complexity. When they try to rationally analyze potential options, their unconscious, emotional thoughts take over and make the choice for them.

This might explain why my debate opponent and I couldn't find common ground!

Phillip W. Anderson
Is string theory a futile exercise as physics, as I believe it to be? It is an interesting mathematical specialty and has produced and will produce mathematics useful in other contexts, but it seems no more vital as mathematics than other areas of very abstract or specialized math, and doesn't on that basis justify the incredible amount of effort expended on it.

My belief is based on the fact that string theory is the first science in hundreds of years to be pursued in pre-Baconian fashion, without any adequate experimental guidance...

Anderson is a Nobel prize winner, and one of the most creative physicists of his generation. He also has a long standing beef with particle physics, and many think his opposition might have been fatal to the Super Conducting Super Collider, the giant accelerator that was killed when partially built. Weinberg even joked that they should have named the "Higgs" particle the "Anderson" particle and then he might not have been so intransigent.

I personally will be disappointed if Anderson turn out to be right and string theory turns out to be completely wrong, or, even worse, completely untestable.

Alison Gopnik
I believe, but cannot prove, that babies and young children are actually more conscious, more vividly aware of their external world and internal life, than adults are...

Amen to that! I recall my then 17 year old son and I watching some young children play in a park once. After several minutes he said: "You know, only little kids are truly alive."

Besides being one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, Neil Bohr was famous for his subtly barbed aphorisms. One of my favorites goes something like this: There are two kinds of truths, ordinary truths and great truths. Ordinary truths are just those statements whose opposites are falsehoods. The opposites of great truths are also great truths.

All the statements above (and the others in the article) fit in the great truth model - at least for now.

Many years ago, I bought a book by George Santayana called Skepticism and Animal Faith. I can't recall ever reading it, but somehow I formed the impression (quite likely wrong!) that part of his point was that skepticism can only take you so far - ultimately you have to fall back on some prerational, instinctive ideas to operate in the world. I really like this notion, whether or not it was really Santayana's. I think that is part of what Roger Shank was talking about.

Which brings me back to my starting point: Intractable disagreements, I guess, have their origins more in the irrational than the rational. People may think they know why they are Democrats or Republicans, Liberals or Conservatives, string theorists or LQGers, but the real roots are in the subtle texture of instinct and experience, not reason.

It might have been Bertrand Russell (I can't tell English Lords apart) who said that he thought that honest men couldn't disagree if the terms were defined carefully enough. Of course none of us is completely honest and it's pretty hard to define terms that precisely - didn't it take Russell and Whitehead something like 348 pages to prove 1 + 1 = 2?

I've got a lot of these prejudices myself, of course. My favorite one is that intelligent people can change their minds.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Social Security

Tomorrow's Washington Post has This great story on the coming Social Security fight. I don't think I've seen the issues set out more clearly anywhere. Jonathan Weisman starts out by laying out the facts:

In just 14 years, the nation's Social Security system is projected to reach a day of reckoning: Retiree benefits will exceed payroll tax receipts, and to pay its bills the system will have to begin redeeming billions of dollars in special Treasury bonds that have piled up in its trust fund.

Well, er, trillions - but what's a factor of a thousand among friends.

The fight will come over the implications:

To President Bush, this is a crisis, worth nothing short of dramatic structural changes to a social insurance system that since 1940 has lifted the elderly and disabled from poverty. To those who wish to preserve the system, it is merely the day when Congress must own up to its past profligacy and begin repaying Social Security for the trillions of dollars it has borrowed to fund immediate tax cuts and spending.

The entire article should be required reading for all of us who wish to derail Bush's scam to deprive those currently 50 (or 55) and younger of the Social Security benefits they having been paying for all their working lives.

American Dynasties and the Fall of the Republic

This Story in The Economist is the latest symptom that the American Republic is once again in trouble. The problem is a dramatic increase in inequality and a corresponding decrease in social mobility. Some quotes:

This is not the first time that America has looked as if it was about to succumb to what might be termed the British temptation. America witnessed a similar widening of the income gap in the Gilded Age. It also witnessed the formation of a British-style ruling class. The robber barons of the late 19th century sent their children to private boarding schools and made sure that they married the daughters of the old elite, preferably from across the Atlantic. Politics fell into the hands of the members of a limited circle—so much so that the Senate was known as the millionaires' club.

Yet the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a concerted attempt to prevent America from degenerating into a class-based society.

Unfortunately, the last 25-50 years has seen much of the result undone, partly by the increasing dynastic tendencies in our politics, but mainly by the regressive tax changes of Reagan and Bush.

The Republicans, by getting rid of inheritance tax, seem hell-bent on ignoring Teddy Roosevelt's warnings about the dangers of a hereditary aristocracy. The Democrats are more interested in preferment for minorities than building ladders of opportunity for all.

Left to their own devices, the Republicans will do their best to turn our republic into an oligarchy. The social security fight will be the next place to resist this trend and fight for the republic. We need to insist that the huge deficits run up by tax cuts for the rich should be paid off by them, not by social security recipients.