Map of the Mind

Map of the Mind

A map of European stereotypes:

No matter how I download it, I can't get the detail that would let you read the small letters, so just click over and see it. The site also has Europe as viewed by Americans, French, Germans, etc.

h/t ZeroHedge

Reality and Actuality

Reality and Actuality, Continued:

Htom asked for a break to put his thoughts in order before we reconvened on the subject of levels of reality -- that is, whether a thing can be "more real" than another. Here's St. Augustine on the subject:

Look around; there are the heaven and the earth. They cry aloud that they were made, for they change and vary. Whatever there is that has not been made, and yet has being, has nothing in it that was not there before. This having something not already existent is what it means to be changed and varied. Heaven and earth thus speak plainly that they did not make themselves: "We are, because we have been made; we did not exist before we came to be so that we could have made ourselves!" And the voice with which they speak is simply their visible presence. It was thou, O Lord, who madest these things. Thou art beautiful; thus they are beautiful. Thou art good, thus they are good. Thou art; thus they are. But they are not as beautiful, nor as good, nor as truly real as thou their Creator art. Compared with thee, they are neither beautiful nor good, nor do they even exist. These things we know, thanks be to thee. Yet our knowledge is ignorance when it is compared with thy knowledge.
That gives us two 'levels' of reality: God, and creation. The original claim of Mark Twain's suggested that a human creation could -- if it were also true and beautiful -- be "more real" than other things that were part of God's creation.

Confer with Tolkien's idea of sub-creation, and his creation myth in the Silmarillion. Human nature has a capacity to seize upon the True and the Beautiful as they are in other things. We can separate them intellectually from the things they are in, and think about why they are beautiful. We can take things that are imperfectly beautiful, and imagine how to make them more so. We can, in our arts, make them actually more beautiful.

Now you have Twain at Wagner's performance. Here is a distillation, in art, of what is true and beautiful. It is "artificial," because it is a work of art. It is also more real, because it is closer to the perfection that lies at the highest level of reality. This, I think, is what Twain meant: and I think it is right.

Good line

A Good Line:

I always appreciate a clever turn of phrase. This one is from Ed Morrissey:

Right now, [Obama's] got the stature of a Carter, who managed the US into malaise and then argued that we should learn to live with it.

Freedom and the Social Contract

Freedom and the Social Contract

John Mauldin posted a hodgepodge of thoughts today touching on freedom and the social contract. He (or his sources) summarized the Enlightenment view on three areas of human freedom:

  1. Political freedom (voting the incompetents out, separation of powers)

  2. Social freedom (freedom of worship, sending one’s children to the school of one’s choice, creating a union, etc.)

  3. Economic freedom (the ability to create a business, hire or fire employees, etc., regulated by contract law between acting parties).

What the philosophers of the 18th century argued was that the Church had to move out of the political sphere, and the State out of the other two.

Sounds good to me. He describes how these different freedoms may manifest themselves:
In Hong Kong, . . . we enjoy one of the freest societies in the World: we have total social freedom, total economic freedom but yet very little political freedom. Still, I believe this compares extremely well with what we have in France, where the church of Marxism has invaded the State and the educational system, destroying both, while the obese State has invaded the social and economic sphere, leaving entrepreneurs without oxygen. As Tocqueville expected, we have moved towards a strange and benign “molle dictature“ [soft dictatorship].

Then he explains how he thinks different societies can successfully adopt very different strategies for liberty:

[T]here are lots of good things – justice, wealth, individual liberty, social stability, security, equity – and we cannot maximize all of them at once. Trade-offs among these ultimate values must be made and that is what politics is about. Societies create a set of trade-offs by negotiation (and by the way democratic elections are not in themselves a mechanism for making these trade-offs; they are simply a mechanism for transmitting information to the agents who are negotiating the trade-offs; so it is a fallacy to presume as many do that only via democratic elections can a society achieve a “true” bargain) . . . .

Among the societies we describe as democratic capitalist there are vast differences in the bargains and hence in the nature of economic activity. America tolerates levels of instability, crime, inequality and pernicious religious zealotry that Europeans and Japanese consider absurd, but it gets in return a much more dynamic entrepreneurial system of wealth creation. Japanese willingly accept levels of social conformity that Westerners consider bizarre, but achieves a high level of social stability and tremendous success in economic areas (such as high precision manufacturing), where self-disciplined social cohesion is a plus.

Here's a good t-shirt on the subject.



When might we go to the stars?

When could we launch a 10 ton interstellar probe to Alpha Centauri based on these calculations? Assume 75 years as the maximum travel time that might be acceptable to mission scientists and assume a rendezvous rather than a flyby mission, acknowledging the need to acquire substantial amounts of data at the destination.

As to propulsion options, Millis works with two possibilities, the first being an ideal case that assumes 100% conversion of stored energy into kinetic energy of the vehicle (think ‘idealized beam propulsion’ or even some kind of space drive), the second being an advanced rocket with an exhaust velocity of 0.03c.

The result: The earliest launch for a 75-year probe is 2247, with a nominal date of 2463. This assumes idealized propulsion[.]
Once, men designed and began work on cathedrals that they knew they would not live to see finished. They trusted in those who came after them to carry on their work, until the spires reached to the heavens. It was worth investing their lives in works they would never live to finish, because they did it for the glory of God.

Today, there are still such men.

Think of us?

What Do Global Warming Types Think of Skeptics?

Well, let's go to the tape.

Thanks for clarifying! Of course, since the debate is over, what more needs be said?

Zero Tolerance for Public Schools

Zero Tolerance for Public Schools

I've been enjoying Greg Sullivan's curmudgeonly "Maine Family Robinson" series on the new RightNetwork. (Sullivan publishes the Sippican Cottage blog as well.) The newest article addresses one of my favorite topics: parents who stand up to absurd public schools. The Sullivan family always assumed they'd have to supplement the mediocre education on offer, but they pulled the plug completely and began to home-school when the craziness reached an intolerable level:

We have had personal experience with "zero tolerance" policies at schools our own children attended, and can testify that what they really mean is that the school administrators will tolerate no brake on their behavior. They will brook no discussion of their approach. The rules will be enforced capriciously, and the whim of a public school administrator can seem very capricious indeed to a sensible person, but under no circumstances will any parent or any other citizen have any input into what goes on in a school anymore. It is the same dynamic that prompts poorly informed and unreasonable people to simply call anyone who questions them in any way "a denier." It is not the issue that is being decided. Who decides is being decided. Here's a hint, parents: It's never you.

Formality II

Formality and Maimonides:

Just the other day, Eric posted a quiz that mentioned the Jewish writer Moses Maimonides. A contemporary of Saladin's (and one time physician of his), Maimonides wrote what he called a "guide for the perplexed" -- for those rational Jews who found the Torah, our Old Testament, to be full of impossibilities. They wanted to remain faithful, but were perplexed at how they should interpret such a document. This work is obviously of interest to Christians as well.

Maimonides explained different senses of ancient words, so as to show a way to read literal phrases ("came down") in a metaphysical, rather than physical, sense. One of these words is translated into English as "form," in both the physical and the metaphysical sense.

What is the physical form of a man? He has limbs and eyes, and so forth. It is the metaphysical form that matters. And what is that?

Cassandra writes at RIGHTNETWORK on the subject of making men from boys.

Today’s world has little use and even less respect for manly strength and character. Too often we confuse manliness with maleness, defining masculinity down to an uninspiring collection of barely controlled biological urges. This is a grave mistake, for a world with diminishing standards and few enforceable rules needs men more than ever.

What is the essence of masculinity? How can we cultivate and honor it in our sons? Harvey Mansfield once defined manliness as “a quality that causes individuals to stand for something”. If men have a salient quality, surely it is strength of body, mind, spirit, and character.
Here is Maimonides' take on the form of men. He is writing about Adam, and his children. (This is Chapter VII of Part I, for those of you who are interested in following along). is said of Adam, "And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat (va-yoled) a son in his own likeness, in his form" (Gen. v. 3).... Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not "the form of man".... It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form"... is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form [i.e., has the physical "form" but not the metaphysical "form" -Grim].

Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury: a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he had been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits, i.e., demons."
Such sons were animals in the flesh, and demons in the spirit. That is what occurs when the body of a human male is filled with a spirit that lacks the form of manhood.

Immigration Catch 22: Part Deux

Immigration Catch 22: Part Deux

The new complaint is that the Social Security Administration sent Meg Whitman a letter in 2003 (six years before she fired her fraudulently-documented housekeeper) noting a discrepancy in her social security number. Does this mean she failed to take appropriate action to fire her sooner, and therefore has managed to be both a scofflaw aider/abettor of immigration fraud and an ice-cold Simon Lagree? Just to show you how crazy this story can get, the Ninth Circuit (which includes California) has ruled that receipt of a Social Security no-match letter is not “just cause” for firing the worker when the worker is covered by a collective bargaining agreement; immigration advocates assert that this standard applies to all employers. What Whitman did, apparently, was turn the no-match letter over to the housekeeper with instructions to handle it. Was that enough? Too much? Both at once? What a sorry state of the law.

Nor is this a question of hypothetical impact and of interest only to nitpicking immigration-law buffs or people running for high office. Although I missed this news item when it happened several weeks ago, I now see that the DOJ has sued the community college system in Maricopa, Arizona, for illegal discrimination in hiring because it required non-citizen job applicants to show green cards. (Well, OK, maybe it still doesn't matter to most people, only to those on the DOJ hit list, like citizens of Arizona.) I really have not been paying attention, because I did not know that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) prohibits employers from demanding certain kinds of documentation until after the hiring decision is made. Even then, their options are strictly circumscribed. Per the EEOC website:

Employers should not ask whether or not a job applicant is a United States citizen before making an offer of employment. The [IRCA] makes it illegal for employers to discriminate with respect to hiring, firing, or recruitment . . . based on an individual's citizenship or immigration status. . . . IRCA requires employers to verify the identity and employment eligibility of all employees hired after [1986], by completing the [I-9] Form, and reviewing documents showing the employee's identity and employment authorization. The law prohibits employers from rejecting valid documents or insisting on additional documents beyond what is legally required for employment eligibility verification . . . based on an employee's citizenship status or national origin. For example, e.g., an employer cannot require only individuals the employer perceives as "foreign" to verify their employment eligibility or produce specific documents, such as Permanent Resident ("green") cards or Employment Authorization Documents. It is the employee's choice which of the permitted documents to show for employment eligibility verification. As long as the document appears reasonably genuine on its face, and relates to the employee, it should be accepted. . . . Because of potential claims of illegal discrimination, employment eligibility verification should be conducted after an offer to hire has been made. [emphasis supplied]
One Maricopa applicant produced a California driver’s license, Social Security card, and a Department of Homeland Security form attesting to his permanent legal status, but he was still asked to fill out more immigration paperwork and present a green card. When he failed to present a green card, his job offer was withdrawn.

If you don't check enough, you may get raided for hiring illegals. Federal immigration law says hiring "an unauthorized alien" can result in fines of up to $3,000 per worker. If you check too much, you may be sued for discrimination. The Maricopa suit seeks damages of $1,100 per applicant. It all depends on whose campaigns you've been contributing to, I suppose. If you're a conservative running for office, you may be lucky enough to be sued under both standards.

h/t HotAir

Is This Really How It Happened?

Is This Really How It Happened?

I'm pretty sure I remember this differently, but the New York Times wouldn't lie to me, would it? Here's their take: the engine of the Tea Partiers' discontent was not the 2009 Stimulus Bill or GM bailout or ObamaCare. It was the 2008 TARP bill! But TARP was structured so that there was a good chance taxpayers would be paid back in full, and what do you know, that may actually be happening, in spite of all subsequent efforts to divert TARP paybacks to other social experiments. So it turns out the Tea Partiers never had anything to complain about, and they should STFU.

Alternate reality per my memory: conservatives were very queasy about TARP, but were just barely willing to tolerate it, because we were very afraid that an intense liquidity crunch would throw the financial system of the U.S. --- if not the world -- into chaos. We'd often wondered whether President Bush had genuinely conservative economic principles, but we at least believed he wouldn't lie to us, and that he was advocating the best course according to his judgment and the judgment of his advisors. The bill was in fact structured so that taxpayers should be paid back, and there was a decent chance of that happening. So we held our nose and for the most part reluctantly supported our president.

Then the new gang took over, and the worst part about TARP appeared to be not so much that it smelled like expensive crony capitalism, but that it opened the floodgates for massive new federal spending that (1) wasn't aimed at easing a critical liquidity crunch that could destroy the financial system, (2) had no prayer of being paid back, (3) was much larger and seemed calculated to lead to endless iterations, and (4) made the crony-favoritism aspect of TARP look like faintly amateurish gestures in contrast. And, what do you know, the Tea Party erupted in outrage and growing influence.

But now that it turns out TARP may not have been so awful, which we always thought was reasonably possible though not guaranteed. So the Tea Partiers should be happy as clams and embrace Spendulus and every other Keynesian nonsense anyone can dream up. Well, OK then!

Another possible interpretation: Government interventions in the economy probably can be held to a benign level, and may be implemented in ways not totally doomed to failure, if they are not administered by spend-happy lunatics in simultaneous control of the White House and both houses of Congress, including a filibuster-proof majority. It follows that we should go out on November 2 and elect fiscal conservatives dedicated to limited government. They won't always be able to stop the madness, and they may occasionally succumb to madness themselves, but they'll do less harm less often. So: go Tea Party.


On Fertility:

It's really all a question of fertility.

Sights from San Francisco

On a business trip to San Fran and of course I thought of all of you.

Masonic Building

(same building)

Public school building (below)

Statue I stopped in road to take picture of (same as Masonic building)

And, my sight seeing tour this time, the "Mission Dolores":

Established in October of 1776, it served as a place for native people to be converted to Christianity. Buried in the cemetery are about 6,000 people, though it's tiny. Europeans were given stone tablets, native people got wood, and many of those (actually, all but the one recently restored) are gone. It was recommended that I go to this place and I'm so glad I did. I usually try to see some sights when I travel, and religious venues are high on my list.

I liked how this painting is depicting Jesus (in the Trinity) as three persons.

Chandeliers in the gift shop.

Though this looks like St. Francis, patron of both this Mission and the City, it's actually Father Junipero Serra, who founded the Mission.

The headstone above shows two children who died very close to one another. Lots of young people were lost in that era to illness.

The headstone below is for a guy whose modest marker was overshadowed by a prominent one (a rather big production,) and I wanted to give him some "press."

The below hut (called a tula) would have been a traditional living structure of the Ohlone (pronounced Ah-loney) Indians, the indiginous people of this area. Some descendents have restored parts of the cemetery to include proper homage to the people that lived here first, and who are buried alongside the European settlers.

Look carefully at the below picture. I was attracted by the wooden marker and its contrast to the stone tablets, and asked the groundskeeper about it. He explained some of the history. I found out that he is the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of the people memorialized on the wooden marker! And there he was watering the flowers in front of their grave! I asked if I could take his picture and then sent it to him on my cell phone. His family is active in the Missions today. I didn't want to show his photo since he has no idea I'm listing any of this on a blog. But I can tell you it is sweet to look at the whole picture with him tending his great (x 6!) grandparents' grave marker. I was glad I was there to take the shot. I feel as though I witnessed a bit of history just by being there.

Some other random shots after the break:

Exploiting Illegals

Exploiting Illegals

I'm really confused. Is Meg Whitman, candidate for California governor, an evil Republican because she employed an illegal alien, or because she didn't? If I understand correctly what happened, she found a housekeeper through a service and employed her for several years at $23/hour until she discovered that the housekeeper was an illegal alien who had fraudulently been using her sister's Social Security number.

This is what happens when we keep a law on the books that we're not willing to enforce. You're screwed whether you obey the law or not. Public sympathy is against the illegal aliens as an amorphous group but solidly in the court of any individual illegal alien who's not an outright drug trafficker or child molester. This is most true when the illegal alien is thwarted in the sympathetic quest to earn a living. As one irritable commenter to this Daily Beast story put it: "Meg is just honoring the time honored tradition of exploit cheap illegal labor, so coveted by the elite Right." This, in spite of the fact that Whitman only found out that her housekeeper was illegal when the housekeeper asked for help on that very subject, whereupon Whitman fired her. This wasn't someone she hired for slave wages from the local corner pool, knowing she could pay a pittance because the worker couldn't afford to come out of the shadows and complain.

Once Whitman learned the worker was illegal, she had absolutely no tolerable options as a candidate for office. She couldn't continue to employ her, but firing her was callous. She couldn't turn her over to the authorities, the way a stern but caring employer might regretfully turn her in for burglary or drug possession, because the authorities aren't in the business of doing anything about an illegal alien and haven't been for some time. So Whitman cast her housekeeper out into limbo, where she was picked up by political operatives, exposed as unemployable, and used as a prop.

It would have been nice if Whitman had helped her housekeeper when she was asked, but what form would that help take? It's not as though the housekeeper has some kind of legal option to pursue, short of returning to Mexico and applying for citizenship through the ordinary channels, a completely hopeless task. Was the housekeeper asking for help, not in the legal sense, but in the sense of hiding her charade? If Whitman had been caught doing that, she'd have been crucified.

So we're left with this kind of political posturing:

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the non-partisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said he believed that the housekeeper’s story might do some damage to the Whitman campaign. “I think it will hurt Meg Whitman because Latinos are sensitive to this issue,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not about the law, it’s about humanity, respect, and human rights.”
Well, it sure can't be about law. The legal system is broken on this one.

Best Worm Ever

Best Worm Ever

I'm starting to see stories about the "Stuxnet" computer virus that is supposed to have struck industrial control programs in Iran more heavily than in other countries, and therefore may be a deliberate attack on that country's nuclear weapons development peaceful nuclear energy program. There aren't that many newspaper articles about it, nor any that have much to say other than that it's a truly impressive piece of malware. I finally found a site written by people with more hacker mojo. The Motley Moose claims that the virus exploits something called "zero day vulnerability," which refers to a flaw that the software's developer has not yet even discovered, let alone tried to patch. A single zero-day vulnerability, the Moose claims, would establish the ordinary hacker's reputation for life. Stuxnet exploits four of them. Also, the virus, which may have been hanging around stealthily since 2009, seems to be mutating in response to clean-up efforts.

Though naturally all eyes are on the U.S. or Israel as suspects, it's not clear yet who dreamed this stuff up. The virus may have been intended to drift around until it located a specific target, but it's impossible to be sure whether the target has been found. In the meantime, though, Iran has announced another delay in its nuclear program.

There is a very interesting discussion in the comments thread at Moose that clearly was written by a bunch of cybersecurity professionals. I couldn't follow most of it, but it was obvious they were both confused and impressed.

Here's a detailed report. I'm just glad I use a Mac.

Dang Kids Today Can't Hold Their Liquor

Dang Kids Today Can't Hold Their Liquor

How many times has this happened to you? You put together a nice birthday party for your three-year-old, invite a few dozen of his friends, you think everything's going to be nice. But the evening wears on, pretty soon there are 150 people there, and after midnight someone starts throwing beer bottles. Lots of them. Next thing you know, 75 people are in a drunken brawl and two guys go to the hospital. Who could have seen it coming?

Apparently Elmwood, Ohio, hasn't caught up with the whole diversity thing, because they had to send to Wyoming for a police officer who spoke Spanish and could sort out the melee.

Lord's Prayer OE

"And Forgyf Us Ure Gyltas"

H/t: a friend I knew in Iraq, who also reads TYWKIWDBI.

Nano-Scale Solar Cell Structures

I feel like more geeky stuff today, so here goes: Stanford University reports that several of its nanotechnology gurus have published a new paper about a gimmick that may revolutionize solar cell technology.

Solar cells often employ a thin layer of light-absorbing material sandwiched between reflective plates. We've known for some time that their efficiency can be increased by certain tricks for making the light bounce around in there as long as possible, because it increases the chances that each photon will be absorbed and turned into electricity rather than spat back out unused. A common method is to scratch up the top plate so that it has lots and lots of sparkly faces oriented in all directions, which randomizes the reflective patterns. For reasons that are beyond me, but that follow from the wave equations that describe the behavior of bouncing and resonating lightwaves, there is a theoretical upper limit on how much benefit can be squeezed out of this trick. The formula that describes the efficiency veers wildly up and down for reflective film thicknesses very near zero, but quickly starts to squiggle back and forth in a narrow range that approximates the efficiency limit as the film thickness increases. The Stanford guys may have found a way to exploit that interesting behavior near the "zero."

Up to now, no one paid much attention to the eccentric behavior of the efficiency formula near zero, because a solar cell's reflective film has to be thinner than a single wavelength of typical sunlight for the off-the-charts tail-end of the formula to matter. These days, however, with the explosion of nanotechnology, it's getting possible to make films even thinner than the wavelength of visible light, which is between about 400 and 700 nanometers (one billionth of a meter). This is seriously small; a single nanometer is only 10 to 30 times longer than the radius of most atoms. It is about 1/50,000 as thick as a human hair. It's so small that many of the rules of thumb that work for structures that are many times as big as a single light wavelength start to break down.

Back to that theoretical limit: for relatively thick films, it settles down to four times the square of the refractive index of the transparent layer. As this nifty graph from the Stanford gurus' paper shows, there is an initial squiggle before the function settles down around its limit, which is shown as 4n2 on the "y" axis. In this early "off the charts" territory, where the transparent layer has a thickness of less than a single wavelength of visible light (shown as "one" on the x-axis in the graph), the efficiency can be anything from very bad to very good. In the "sweet spot" between 0.5 and 1.0 wavelength (shown on the graph by the red vertical stripe), the efficiency is at least equal to the "ideal" 4n2 and can go up as high as several times that much before dropping back to normal, where it then stays no matter how thick the reflective layer gets. The new idea is to cherry-pick the best efficiencies by building nano-thin solar cell layers with a thickness of between a half and a full light wavelength, which is to say a few hundred nanometers, or still only 1/100 of the thickness of a human hair. This approach not only promises to increase the efficiency of absorbing light but also to decrease the volume (and therefore cost) of materials needed for such thin layers. So this work may lead to much cheaper and more efficient solar panels.

In related news, the Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University in Houston will hold an event on Sunday, October 10, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the "buckyball," the foundation of carbon nanotechnology. This event honors the winners of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Robert Curl, Sir Harold Kroto, and the late Richard Smalley, who together demonstrated in 1986 that carbon vapor could condense in the form of 60-atom symmetrical balls called "buckminsterfullerenes" or "buckyballs." The idea of nanotechnology, which is not confined to carbon, dates back at least to Nobel laureate Richard Feynman's comments on the subject in the 1959. In 1981, physicists Heinrich Rohrer and Gerd Binning opened the door to great advances in the nano world by inventing the scanning tunnel microscope, a new type of electron microscope with a magnifying power of 10 million. (To the upper right is an STM image of a carbon nanotube, a stretched-out version of a buckyball.) For this accomplishment Rohrer and Binning were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986. Today, nanotechnology is revolutionizing not only manufacturing but medicine. A young person casting about for a career could do far worse than this field.

Are the Rich Getting Richer, and Should I Care?

Are the Rich Getting Richer, and Should I Care?

Earlier this month, the Canadian Financial Post ran a column by Terence Corcoran on "The U.S. Income Divergence Myth." He started with graphs created by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, including one included in the Obama budget, appearing to show that the percentage of wealth controlled by the top tenth of the richest Americans hovered around 40% just before the Great Depression, plummeted afterwards and stayed relatively stable in the 30%-40% area until the 1980s, then spiked to nearly 50% recently. (I can say "plummeted" and "spiked" about a range of movements of this kind because the graph is helpfully truncated at 30% on the low side and 50% on the high side.) Corcoran pokes holes in a number of aspects of these conclusions, including the exclusion of any consideration of taxes and regional differences in cost of living. He also points out that the increase in the share of the top 10% is almost entirely driven by the top 1% and has a lot to do with the revolution in earnings by pop figures such as entertainers and sports stars.

Then he gets to the question that I think is the most interesting:

Why [does] inequality of incomes — before or after tax —— even matter in a market economy where no kings rule by force and no aristocracy plunders the people?



So, we had an interesting discussion below about Wagner, and how an artificial thing might be 'more real' than reality. Let's talk a little more about that.

Let's say you have been sitting on rocks all your life. You are used to it, but you have noticed that some rocks serve the purpose of sitting better than others. For example, rocks that are flatter, and of a certain size, are superior for sitting purposes than rocks that are sharp or angled. At some point, you take this knowledge and sort out what the truth is about 'that which is good for sitting.' You use this knowledge to build something you decide to call a chair.

The chair is an artifact, not a thing found in nature. Yet it is superior for your purpose to any rock you will find in nature -- or any log -- or anything else you might sit upon. This is because you have extracted from reality, and purified, the truth about sitting and what kind of things are good to sit upon.

That same rather prosaic model can be applied to moral questions. Let's say I see three people do something that I admire, but in which I can see that they are acting from mixed motives. I can extract the thing I admire from their mixed motives, and hold it up pure in my mind. This is the thing I call "good," and in some way it is a more real good than any of the three things I saw.

An artist can do this too. Twain wrote: "I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion." What is it to be great? What is it to be fine? Well, what is it to be good? It's the same process of extraction and purification, so that we have the idea without adulteration. It makes perfect sense for art to be able to be greater and finer than reality.

Then, though, we come to "real." Here we have a question. Is it real? Is it "more real"? What would it mean for it to be "more real"? If it is extracted from reality, and purified of the admixture of impurities that we always ever find in reality, how is that making it "more real"? I think Twain is right, but it's important to understand just why and how he is right.

"You keep using that word. Somehow I don't think it means what you think it means."

The New York Times points to this 'poll' by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:

"Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life."

And basically everybody they got to actually answer the questions "failed" the test.

Although you would not know that from these other commentors:

Here are the percentages from the Pew poll:

So the average for the poll is 50% correct, and the highest average in the subgroups is 65%. I dunno about any of you, but that's a failing grade where I come from.


Now, if you go here you can take a 15 question quiz and compare yourself to everybody else who took the longer quiz for this poll. I got 14 out of 15 (I dunno which one I missed--maybe the one about the great awakening) and that, apparently, is better than "97% of the public". These questions were not hard.

All this really tells me is that atheists and agnostics probably know more about various religions because the atheists like to refute everybody's beliefs, and the agnostics have probably shopped around looking for something agreeable. Therefore, more exposure. Mormons probably end up knowing more because what, every Mormon male able to has to go be a 'missionary' for 2 years? Therefore, more exposure. I'll bet that every Jew they talked to was a college graduate, which again means more exposure. The rest who identify with a particular religion are likely comfortable with it and most probably brought up in it, and are not curious about other beliefs, because, well, why would you be?

I'd love to see Pew go and try this in other countries, and see how they score.

Coming Soon

Coming Soon to a Court Near You:

There's got to be a way to shoehorn this into the 14th Amendment. I mean, they found gay marriage in there, so what's stopping this? It's an 'equal protection' decision too!

A Toronto judge has struck down Canada’s prostitution laws, effectively decriminalizing activities associated with the world’s oldest trade.

“These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Justice Susan Himel of Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice said in Tuesday’s landmark decision.
The argument appears to be that criminalizing prostitution means that they are denied the equal protection of Canada's version of OSHA. If only they had licensed bawdy houses, they could have their workplaces inspected and certified too!

These attempts to 'perfect' the principle of equal protection are going to end up destroying it instead. There will come a time when the people will say, "You know what? If it really requires us to abandon every institution and assumption of our society, maybe 'equal protection' isn't so important after all."

Assignments Editor

Assignments Editor:

DB, I trust you understand that you will have a responsibility to attend and review this production. Yes, I know that it's fifteen hours long.

Wagner's Ring cycle has at least one singular honor. Mark Twain, as readers of this page well know, hated the whole business of enchantment. He wrote a famous, and very nasty, piece about Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe -- essentially suggesting that it was responsible for the Civil War. His "Connecticut Yankee" tale is mostly a mockery. So too he tried to mock Wagner, and the people who came to listen to him.

He sent home an essay that reads at first like a methodical takedown: he notes all the weirdness of the Wagner cult, the confounding aspects of the experience. “Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad,” he writes. Then, just when he seems ready to give the knife a final twist, he reveals himself as another convert. “But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.”
You can read the journal of Twain's trip here.

"I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion." That is an interesting formulation, and one I'd like you to think about. The Ring is a work of art, and some would say that makes it at most a copy of what is real. Mark Twain saw many real things in his life. None of them, though, were "so real" as this thing -- this thing that was art and, therefore, 'artificial.'

Twain was a man who said what he meant. What might it mean for art to be 'more real' than reality? Is that right, or is it wrong, and why?

Day By Day

Day By Day, Today:

Today's DBD involves T99's "True the Vote" issue in Houston. The radio show asks about the little 'rounding error' of around 17,000 votes (in a sample of 25,000 votes).

The response is a good one, but it falls short of the standard set by Joliet Jake.

Are Nations with Rising Economies Less Vulnerable to Attack?

Assistant Village Idiot argues that they are, because of a kind of psychological deterrence that works in reverse when our enemies sense we lack the will to resist. In a post that addresses the pros and cons of a Tea Party whose foreign policy doesn't go far beyond "respect the military," he suggests that that may be good enough for now, and adds:

Respect for the military follows similar lines. The psychological aspect, in and of itself, seems to provide a warning to would-be attackers. In less-visible ways, a country's support for its businesses, schools, churches, or any other institution is a part of its effectiveness.

What do you guys think? Especially the part about how potential enemies view the strength of our non-military institutions, which I think is even more interesting than the main point, since my thoughts have been occupied this year with the notion that the way to keep government small is to keep private institutions various and strong.

On Names

On Names:

Via the always interesting Arts & Letters Daily, a piece on the subject of names. It starts off with how much names have changed in the last hundred and fifty years in England and America; but it ends up as a wide exploration of naming conventions in Europe, including during Anglo-Saxon England and ancient Greece.

One of my favorite facts about ancient Greek names is that you should always take a moment to find out what they mean. They often sound very much more dignified to us than the Greeks intended them to be. This isn't the case for the god-related names, but a surprising number of them translate in some interesting way. (The author makes the point that we often don't translate Greek names like we do Indian names: "Crazy Horse," for example.) Take noble Odysseus, for example. To a Greek ear, that name sounds like "Troublemaker." We have in the Iliad, then, 'noble Troublemaker, whose counsel is like the gods'.'

The other interesting comment is about the sudden shift in naming conventions following the Norman conquest. Names like "Lady Noble Beauty" were much more interesting, and would have been much more personally meaningful, than what the Saxons suddenly adopted following the conquest. "It is rather as if an orchestra had been replaced by a recorder ensemble."

Of course, more shocking than that to an American ear may be the practice in modern Italy, where a judge feels that he has the right to rename your child if he doesn't like the name you picked.

Funny Times

Funny Times:

Citizens burst into laughter when a Congressman describes Social Security as 'stable.'

Headline: Bars promote youth drinking by installing national debt clocks.

A report that the conversation at the local American Legion post is turning against the existence of Congress.

Washington Redskins pie charts, for those in D.C. trying to take refuge in sports.

Yet somehow the Onion is still talking about Bush. Reminds me of someone else, that.

Watch Those Polls

Watch Those Polls

A month ago I linked here to a Houston Chronicle story about a fire that burned up pretty much all of Harris County's voting machines in the middle of the night. No one has nailed down exactly how that happened and whether it was bad luck or malfeasance, though no accelerants have been found. The timing was more suspicious than I immediately realized, though.

A local watchdog group called "True the Vote" had formed after their experience as poll-watchers during the 2008 elections curdled their blood. They decided early to focus their attention on homes containing more than six registered voters. Most voting districts had a couple of thousand of these. One had 24,000. That's where the group found that a group called "Houston Votes," headed by an employee of SEIU, had submitted 25,000 voter registrations, fewer than 1,800 of which appeared to be valid. Houston Votes issued the usual "mistakes were made" press release and fired some workers.

Harris County's voter registrar announced in late August 2010 that "the integrity of the voting rolls in Harris County, Texas, appears to be under an organized and systematic attack by the group operating under the name Houston Votes." The next day, the county's voting-machine warehouse burned to the ground.

It's always a good idea to serve as an election judge or election clerk if you can possibly spare the time. Even better might be to volunteer as a poll watcher. A good voter registrar can catch a lot of registration fraud, but if there's rot at the precinct level, nothing short of eyes on the scene on election day can stop some of the abuses. Without poll watchers, "True the Vote" never would have gotten started.

The Houston Chronicle, in the meantime, seems to have a complete blackout on any coverage of this fraud. The only place you can find it mentioned is in the reader comment sections. Such a pitiful newspaper for the second largest county in the U.S.

Chesterton and Philosophy

Chesterton and Philosophy:

I see there's sort of a debate about the quality of Chesterton's philosophy. Mr. Austin Bramwell writes the case against:

In Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s chief tactical point was that the main Christian dogmas were more liberal in their implications than the self-consciously liberal dogmas by which they were assualted. . . . This was not put very well. But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked. It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.
In other words, Chesterton is an irrationalist. His seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.
Mr. Ross Douthout replies in favor that Chesterton was more of a newspaperman than a philosopher.
Part of what makes Chesterton appealing to so many readers is also what makes him frustrating if you approach his writing looking for straightforward, syllogistic argument — namely, that his appeals on behalf of Christianity (or any other cause) tend to rove from history to philosophy to intuition to revelation to politics to aesthetics and then back to history again, with all different sorts of arguments crowding in together, and no necessary A=B=C thread to follow all the way through. He is not an “irrationalist,” as Bramwell suggests, but he isn’t Plato either. But then again neither are most people: They justify what they believe, whether it’s about God or political order or love or any other aspect of human affairs, based on a mishmash of different facts, ideas, experiences, premises, impulses, and so forth. And Chesterton succeeds as a polemicist, if not as a philosopher....
That's giving away too much to Mr. Bramwell's position. Chesterton is a better philosopher than either credit.

First, let's start with the suggestion that Chesterton "isn't Plato" because of his mode of argument, which mixes mythology and intuition, politics and aesthetics. So does Plato! In the Republic, he starts off the clash with a man who comes barreling in 'like a wild beast,' and raises a philosophical challenge using language appropriate for a duel. Plato's Socrates undertakes an argument that begins with a symbolic story about a magic ring that gives a wicked man the power to seem good, and a good man who is fated to be both imprisoned and scorned. How can we say that the virtuous man is really the happy one?

To answer this challenge, he then departs into an analogy -- the description of the ideal state. It's a double analogy, though, because the state is like a person and a person is like a state: they are divided into reason, spiritedness, and the more base drives. In the state, those most suited to reason should rule the spirited (who perform as the physical defenders of the state and its laws) and those less able to control base drives (who do labor). In the person, the reason is meant to rule over the spirit, which gives you strength to flourish; and over the base drives, which must be satisfied in a way that accords with reason.

(A point occasionally missed is that this analogy is to be operating at both levels, all the time. Thus, when Plato writes that soldiers should only be called courageous for obeying the orders of the rulers, it isn't the case that soldiers should have no initiative but should blindly obey orders. It is the case that, when they do act with initiative, they should be obeying the 'ruling' part of their soul, reason, which should guide their spirited actions. This is the difference between courage and rashness.)

Does this analogy actually solve the puzzle of the magic ring? Not that I can tell; but it certainly does give rise to a great deal of thought and exploration of ideas. There is no A=B=C at work, though. Plato's assertion of the primacy of reason doesn't mean either that he sets aside the aesthetic or the political, nor even that his ruling reason requires him to answer the questions he raises, or make sure his analogies are sufficient for a solution.

Likewise, in the Timeaus, Plato departs into a mythological analogy (or possibly into actual mythology) when trying to explain the nature and origin of time. He explains about a minor godlike figure crafting chaos in the image of eternity. Later Neoplatonists refining this image make a fairly baroque concoction: Plotinus, for example, wants us to hold in mind both a One, which exists wholly without dimensions, and Eternity, which does likewise, and where Intellect lives; and a World Soul, which invents the world and time; and of which our souls are part. So, the unextended things end up being present in all extended things, but somehow without losing their unextended nature: or else all extended things are present inside the unextended things, making them an illusion. It is sometimes suggested that the extended things emanate from the unextended ones, but that is not the answer, because he also says that the World Soul (which is unextended) is in every part of the world just as a man's soul is in every part of his body; or possibly the body is inside the soul, as he suggests elsewhere.

Chesterton, who is writing about ineffable things as well, does a better job of keeping them imaginable. Plotinus is asking us to believe that the true nature of the universe is something like a round square. Working through even how to construct his model is a mind expanding exercise partially because he is asking you to think what is rationally impossible (an unextended thing that is in every part of an extended thing without becoming multiple).

The point is that our reasoning and intuitions about the world are insufficient to the truth as he sees it: but insofar as this qualifies as grand philosophy, as it surely must, the proper complaint against Chesterton would be that his ineffability is too easy to imagine. It is that it is too reasonable, not that it is irrational.

Now, post-Enlightenment, we're supposed to believe that reason is indeed capable of being -- as Mr. Bramwell puts it -- being 'uncabined.' Yet Kant, that prince of Rationality, did not think so; he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason to lay out what some of the limits of human reason were. He ran into other, practical limits elsewhere: after his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which asserted that rational nature would reliably produce morality, in the actual Metaphysics of Morals he ends up asserting that a number of emotions -- including what Mr. Bramwell is describing as awe, which is also variously translated as "reverence" or "respect" -- are necessary to human morality. Even if reason can tell us what the right thing to do is, we have to have a reason to ask what the right thing to do is. Rational nature alone does not provide it: for example, if you can imagine a tiger who was rational, his reason might well not suggest the Golden Rule or a Categorical Imperative.

Kant's second Critique ends on a similar note, which finds what he had doubted could be found in earlier writings: a reliable road to God. This he does not find in reason alone, though, but in reason as applied to the awe he feels at 'the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.'

Ultimately, very few philosophers in history have achieved the A=B=C precision of modern analytic philosophy. More importantly, none of the great ones have achieved it, and many appear not to have striven for it. Kierkegaard did not want it; St. Thomas Aquinas, for all of his love of reason, was willing to stand on ineffability when it came to the Trinity.

A second basic point: Chesterton was writing at the end of the Romantic period. As we were discussing a few days ago, the Romantic period responded to the Enlightenment by suggesting that there had been too much focus on rationality. Human nature is such that romance is necessary as well. Chesterton's two-phase approach -- liberality, but also the 'slash of the sword' -- is an attempt at dialectic synthesis, which is a highly philosophical thing to attempt.

It's also not clear to me that the Romantic thinkers were wrong. The Romantic period ended in World War I's killing fields: but not because it was disproven. In a sense, it was proven. People walked away from the Romantic period because it seemed to have given rise to fearful things: which is to say that they followed their hearts. Many of them followed their hearts right into Red Communism and the emotional intensity of fascism. When we see Wagner seized upon by the Nazis, we see the truth of Romanticism's critique of the Enlightenment -- but also Plato's remarks that the spirited nature should be guided by reason. The two must talk.

A philosophy that does not engage aesthetics, politics, and mythology is therefore incomplete in an especially dangerous way. Philosophy must engage these questions above all, insofar as it is philosophy in the service of humanity. Chesterton's ready ability to weave a binding strand between image and argument, aesthetic and ethic, is a strength. It doesn't abandon or 'cabin' reason. Rather, it is the kind of reason that knows how to approach the Beautiful as well as the True.