Molly Ivins, 1944-2007. Her final column was published on January 7.

Notes on the coming plague

Note #1:
More than 300 cases of the highly infectious disease, which is spread by airborne droplets and kills 98% of those infected within about two weeks, have been identified in South Africa.

The disease is a new strain of extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis, or XDR-TB, and it is so dangerous that South Africa and the WHO are considering forcibly detaining infected patients until they die, to avoid regional or global catastrophe. Link.

Note #2:
Acinetobacter was the second most prevalent infection for soldiers in Vietnam, but the military did not expect to see it as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Researchers are still working to understand where it came from and how patients were infected.

And they say Iraq isn't another Vietnam.

So far, no active-duty soldiers have been killed, but they've brought the infection back to hospitals where it has killed five other people. Link.

On a relatively lighter note (with emphasis on "relatively"), check out this little dumb game Pandemic. There's really not a lot of input from the player (I typically don't have any points to spend on evolving my virus until day 40 or so), and basically you are just watching your virus kill 50 percent of the human population. I'm interested if anyone has a different approach, but my aim has been to keep the visibility of the virus low until it has infected all regions, and yet I've completely failed to infect Western Europe before they close their borders. Apparently, they don't have airports in Western Europe.

Twangy fence music post #4

There's a post about Jon Rose over at the Proceedings..., but nothing there explains the lighting.

Speaking of the Iranian threat

CNN.com has an article up right now with the breathless headline Iran role suspected in brazen Iraq attack. Without getting into a discussion of the claims made about Iranian influence, here's a catalog of the sources cited:
  • "two officials from separate U.S. government agencies"

Done and done.

Addendum: Ogged has a more effective post making similar points.



[Latin 'vastatio', from 'vastare', to lay waste, from 'vastus', empty, waste]

A laying waste, depopulation or devastation.

Please Hammer, don't hurt em

This has got to count as a good thing, I suppose, but Arlen Specter needs to hire a better speech writer.
"The decider is a shared and joint responsibility," Specter said.


A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, encoded in a sudoku, transcribed in a crossword

The other day I heard that, as of December, the US changed its policy toward Iranian agents encountered in Iraq. According to the report, the former policy had been 'catch and release' and the new policy is 'kill or capture'.

What? Until December of 2006 the US military's policy toward foreign agents found in Iraq was catch and release?! I'm pretty much a pacifist, and even I think those tactics sound irresponsibly naive. On the other hand, what does kill or capture mean? Are we talking about combat or summary executions? And, are we talking about limited term detention or are we talking about eternal confinement with some torture thrown in? And why, if the policy changed in December, is the Bush Administration crowing about it now?

Actually, the last question has a pretty simple answer. The Bush Administration is crowing about the new policy now because they're making a show of escalating the tension between the US and Iran.

That itself, though, is pretty strange. Leaving aside the fact that war with Iran would be a really bad idea, how does escalating the rhetoric against Iran and its religious fundamentalists square with a surge strategy in Iraq that basically amounts to the US taking the side of the Shia against the Sunni in Baghdad? Which is to say that there's something bizarre about the US simultaneously (a) turning up the heat against Iran, and (b) taking the side of Iran's Iraqi allies in the burgeoning Iraqi Civil War.

One possible answer to this puzzle, and the one I had pretty much resigned myself to accepting, is that the US powers that be still don't understand basic facts about the religious and sectarian divisions in that part of the world, and that this thoroughgoing ignorance has led to a massively incoherent policy.

This morning, though, I'm entertaining the possibility that what's going on is stupidity of an entirely different order. That is, I'm thinking that we're seeing the Clintonian political formula of triangulation applied as actual real military strategy. It goes like this. The US wants to be the dominant political actor in Iraq. To accomplish this, we have to disentangle the Shia from Iran, which means we must wage a serious campaign against Iranian influence. On its own, though, such a campaign wouldn't accomplish our goals because it would inevitably anger the Shiite majority -- in fact, we'll have to take on some Shiite militias in the name of freeing the rest of the Shia from foreign influence. Thus, we must triangulate by striking out against some group that's opposed to the Shia. Since we aren't going to strike out at ourselves or the Kurds, that leaves the Sunni. Sucks to be them.


Sometimes it just turns out that way

Ladies take note: If I can find my long underwear, I'm wearing it today.

In other weather related news, Heavy Weather is starts out as a pretty good contribution to the cyberpunk tornado chaser genre but falls apart in the last 30 pages or so.

Speaking of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, Children of Men is a pretty good contribution to the genre, even though it sometimes hits you over the head with its politics.


Drosophila aqua pura

I found a dead bug floating in the glass of water that I keep on the nightstand. As icky as bugs are, you'd think they'd foul the taste of the water.


Put it on toast

You know what consistently surprises me about Top Chef? The apparent unanimity of taste among the judges. The last thing you expect to find, especially at the highest levels, is conformity of aesthetic opinion. Think about painters. It's uncontroversial to say that Van Gogh, Picasso, Rubens, Matisse, O'Keefe, Rembrandt and Vermeer were all great painters. Imagine, though, being shown one painting by each and then being asked to pick a winner. Do that to a panel of expert judges and what you'd expect is a debate. So what gives with Top Chef? There's some back and forth between the judges, but rarely any sharp disagreements. How can it be so easy for the judges to agree on a winner to each challenge? Honestly, I suspect that the producers play a larger role than is acknowledged.

Also, I think Marcel gets a raw deal. Yes, he's kind of annoying. On the whole, though, he strikes me as less of an asshole than the median Top Chef contestant.

Addendum: And, of course, ten minutes after I post this debate breaks out. Go figure.

Once again into the breach

Those of you who dig the police violence arguments should rush on over to Safety Neal's Fireside Chat, where Neal has posted a YouTube video of a student at UCLA being repeatedly tasered by police. To repeat the point I made in comments there, one of the things that's striking about the video is that the police officers remain calm and professional throughout. The repeated taserings, as agonizingly painful as they obviously are for the subject, are mere routine for the officers. Their mandate is to enforce compliance to their orders, and they are trained to escalate their use of violence until compliance is achieved.

Now, I don't deny that there is some wisdom in this kind of procedure. A good way to win a fight, after all, is to escalate your use of violence past the point your opponent is prepared to go. What I claim is rather that reliance on this model of conflict resolution leads to a lot of avoidable violence, and that this is bad for a lot of reasons. One obvious set of reasons has to do with consequences like pain, humiliation, and death. Another reason is that we fancy our country to be a democracy, and that form of government seems to require that citizens be accorded more respect than these kinds of procedures allow.


[Origin: 1610–20, from Latin 'Pharisaicus', from Greek 'Pharisaikós']

Of, relating to, or characteristic of the Pharisees.
2. (lowercase) Hypocritically self-righteous and condemnatory.


State of the Union Preview

Applause. Self-deprecating joke. Shout out to visiting dignitary from an American protectorate. Lie. Applause line. Applause line. Three more lies. Applause line. Unplanned democratic applause at an embarrasing admission. Lie. Lie. New program that sounds good, but actually isn't. Applause line. Applause line. Applause line. Lie. Applause line. Lie. Applause Line. Applause line. Applause Line. God bless America!

Weird news roundup!

According to new research, the Moon affects not only the tides of the oceans but also people, producing a range of symptoms from flare-ups of gout to bladder problems. It may even lie behind the causes of car crashes and affect people's hormonal balances.
| The Independent |

Oh come off it, scientists. Next you'll be telling us that astrology can assess the risk of car accidents.

Meanwhile, in India, a court has determined that, in at least one legal category, elephants enjoy the same legal status as humans. If that were to happen here, imagine the stress on our education system!

Lastly, in Greece, Zeus worship is on a comeback.
A tiny group of worshippers plans a rare ceremony Sunday to honor the ancient Greek gods, at Athens' 1,800-year-old Temple of Olympian Zeus. Greece's Culture Ministry has declared the central Athens site off-limits, but worshippers say they will defy the decision.

Unfortunately, even in revival of an ancient religion, the first thing you get is sectarian conflict:
Those who seek to revive the ancient Greek religion are split into rival organizations which trade insults over the Internet.

Sweet zombie Jesus, where will it end?

Quote of the morning

"I never thought the day would come when I'd miss John Ashcroft as Attorney General, but that day has come."

Kevin Drum


You get a few words alone in a room and with plenty of time on your hands and you can do almost your will on them

Would you believe that before writing that last entry I had never encountered a mention of the frequentative case? Would you go for noticed?

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry tells you everything you need to know. "In grammar, a frequentative form of a word is one which indicates repeated action." Neat. So a repeated creak becomes a crackle. Also neat.

Would you believe that until I checked out the 'frequentative' article in the Wikipedia I had never heard of the Wiktionary? Would you go for Mark Dilley mentioned it to me but I never got around to checking it out?

Well, I can tell you this for real and for true. The Wictionary is at least as cool as the frequentative case.

NB The title for this post is part of a fragment culled from one of Robert Frost's notebooks. I cribbed it from Harper's. It was on the same page as the Nabokov poem that had the word 'crepitate'. The other cool word in that poem was 'incarnadine', an adjective which means of the blood red color of raw flesh. The first sentence of the poem, comprising three lines, reads, "I found a lengthy word with a non-Russian ending, / unwittingly, inside a children's storybook, / and turned away from it with a strange kind of shudder."


[from Latin 'crepitāre', to crackle, frequentative of 'crepāre', to creak]

intr. v.
To make a crackling or popping sound.

I and I

Two datapoints from this month's Harper's Index:
  • Average number of times that President Bush has used the pronoun "I" in each of his State of the Union addresses: 36
  • Average number of times that President Clinton did in his addresses: 103

It's hard to say which way this cuts. I remember learning back in high school that Napoleon's letters to Josephine contained an unreasonably large number of instances of the first person indexical pronoun, and being told that this showed Napoleon to be an egomaniac. On the other hand, underuse of the pronoun could be seen as indicative of an unwillingness to accept personal responsibility.

Relatedly, I spend a lot of times in meetings and those meetings tend to hew closer to a Clintonian consensus model than a Bushian decider model. It has occurred to me that there are a lot of efficiencies to be found in the Bush approach. Be that as it may, those efficiencies would seem to be swamped by other factors when bad decidering fails to lead to a change in deciders.


Must. Write. Blog. Post. (cough) (cough)

Item: I'm not sick. I don't get sick. It's one of the many benefits of being a nonsmoker. Ask anyone.

Item: This YouTube vid is awesome. So is this one. Both via unfogged, which should probably be on the blogroll.

Item: After watching The Karate Kid, I always believe that I'm 126 minutes closer to death.

Item: If you follow only one link in this post, it should be this one.

Item: If you're looking for somebody to blame for that last one, blame Neil the Ethical Werewolf.

Item: Speaking of blogs that should probably be on the blogroll, there's Axis of Evil Knievel.

Item: Interesting historical fact. Back in the day they used to display the impaled heads of traitors on pikes located at the entrance to London Bridge. Preserved by being dipped in tar, individual heads remained on display for decades or even centuries. The practice didn't end until 1660, after more than 30 heads had accumulated.

That's all I got.



[c.1568, from O.N. 'happ', chance, good luck, from P.Gmc. '*khapan' (source of O.E. 'gehæp' convenient, fit). Meaning good fortune is from c.1225.]

unlucky; luckless; unfortunate.
2. deserving or inciting pity.

"The hapless Marty Schottenheimer has once again failed to reach the Super Bowl."


[ME 'shriven', 'schrifen', from OE 'scrīfan', to prescribe, from Latin 'scribere', to write]

tr. v.
To hear the confession of and give absolution to (a penitent).
2. To obtain absolution for (oneself) by confessing and doing penance.


UPDATED: Which Democrat would you like to be President?

Let the 2008 race begin here on this blog. As we get closer, I'm sure we'll talk a lot about who should get the Democratic nomination and save America, and a lot of that talk will involve our judgment of who can win against the Republican challenger. But now, in the early days when we don't even have a clear idea of who is going to run (I mean, seriously, Chris Dodd?), my question is this:

Assuming that the winner of the Democratic primary were to automatically win in the general election, who would you support?

In the field of candidates (and likely candidates) so far, my answer is John Edwards. What about you?

UPDATE: What's the point of this question?

The point of this question is to start acknowledging some preferences among the likely candidates for the Democratic nomination. Likewise, when I later post a question about which could most likely beat the Republican challenger without any concern about whether he or she would actually make a good president, I will also intend to restrict the question to likely candidates.

The point, dear readers and co-bloggers, is to begin a discussion about whom we should support of the likely candidates.

So, no Robert Byrd, and no William Shatner. Got it?

The wrong argument

Dahlia Lithwick's rhetoric in her latest dispatch makes me mad enough to spit:
Remember that first day of college, when the dean of students explained to the young women that 19-year-old boys would be inclined to grope them pretty much constantly for the next four years unless they yelled, "No"? Section 760 more or less shifted the burden to the boys to ask if the girls want to be groped.

She likes the image so much that she uses it again to close the article:
This probably isn't good news for the unions, which are about to see their power to engage in political advocacy sharply limited by the high court. But as the justices seem mostly to agree today, it's not certainly not illogical to assume that if that cute freshman from your Russian-lit class already told you she didn't want to go on a date with you, it's a pretty safe bet she doesn't want to have sex with you, either.

The worst part is that, poisoned wells aside, Lithwick has a point. The claim that unions may reasonably assume that non-members support the union's political positions is obviously bunk. Since a union's right to collect agency fees is based on and limited by the principle that non-members have an obligation to pay for the costs of representation in collective bargaining, it follows that the union lacks a right to collect agency fees for other purposes. Insofar as political activities are divorced from collective bargaining, then, unions lack a right to collect agency fees for those purposes.

But that's not to say that Section 760 should be upheld (though of course it will be). The real issue here ought to be whether the union's participation in politics is seperable from its role as a collective bargaining agent. And it should be obvious that it isn't. Whatever strategic arguments might be had within the labor movement as to the relative merits of emphasizing politics or organizing, the plain fact is that political action can have an effect on contracts. As such, there isn't a clean distinction between collective bargaining and political action, and if we were having the right argument then it would be clear that the union's agency fee mandate extends to both.

The only problem is that the Supreme Court has already adopted (please don't ask me for a citation) a very narrow rule for determining which union activities are included in its collective bargaining responsibilities, and that rule explicitly excludes political action. The situation is not unlike that in affirmative action cases, where bad precedents force those who support such programs to rely on relatively weak diversity rationales rather than employing justice based arguments. So here we are, having (and losing) the wrong argument. It's annoying.



Mike has a good post up about Andy Stern and immigration. You can read it if you follow this link.

Excuses, excuses

I couldn't stop myself. I watched the speech. Here's what I took to be the key passage:
I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign-policy matters with war on my mind. |W|

Oh, wait. That was from Meet the Press last February. Here, for real, are the two passages that leapt out at me:
I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq’s other leaders that America’s commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people — and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act. The prime minister understands this. Here is what he told his people just last week: “The Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of sectarian or political affiliation.”
Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity and stabilizing the region in the face of extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.|W|

The first paragraph sounds like an ultimatum. That is, it sounds like Bush is telling Makiki that if his government doesn't become a full partner in the US strategy to fight the insurgency, then the US will go home. Since Maliki obviously isn't going to take a stand against the Shiite militias, the warm and fuzzy optimistic cynic in me wants to believe that this is Bush's way of saving face. We'll have the surge, but (supposedly) due to a lack of cooperation from Maliki, Baghdad won't be pacified. Bush can then blame Maliki for the failure, throw up his hands, and bring the troops home. Also, I get a pony.

The second paragraph sounds like a threat. That is, it sounds like Bush is saying that if the surge doesn't work then that will be the result of Iranian and Syrian meddling. The cold and jaded pessimistic cynic in me can't help but believe that this is part of a larger strategy to widen the war. We'll have the surge, but (supposedly) due to foreign interference, Baghdad won't be pacified. Bush can then blame Iran (or Syria) for the failure, set his jaw, and go all Curtis LeMay on their asses. Nobody gets a pony, but hopes are raised in the fever swamp.

It's a new doctrine of preemptive ass covering, and you've got to admire the thoroughness. Whatever we do, and wherever mistakes may have been made, Bush will have an excuse.



Overheard on NPR

As long as the United States stays in the air, the danger of getting drawn into another Black Hawk Down is relatively remote.

Addendum: I understand that the point is a less stupid than the phrasing. In other addenda, have I mentioned my paranoid fantasy? Namely, that the Bush Administration is trying to get the United States bogged down in so many theaters that there will be no choice but to institute a draft.


What! ANOTHER free will thread?!

In comments, Deer -- who inexplicably lacks her own blog[1] -- pointed out that zefrank took on the question of free will today. Make your own judgment as to what zefrank is getting at, but know that I wholeheartedly agree with what I think he's getting at.

Which brings me to a nutty view that I hold on alternate Thursdays and some of the days in between. Very briefly, the idea is that the emphasis we place on choice and agency is misplaced, and that if we're going to be impressed by something about consciousness then what we ought to be impressed by is apprehension.

1 CaringBridge doesn't count!

DEVELOPING: USA not only nation for sale

Via Julian Sanchez, I see that Sealand is for sale.

If only I could afford it!

Back in ninth grade I got a D in Geography because I refused to change the topic of my semester report from Sealand to what my teacher referred to as a real country. She focused her argument around the claim that Sealand was utterly inconsequential, but had no adequate response to my objection from Andorra. The impasse was never resolved, except insofar as I got a zero on the assignment.

By these signs you will know it

Hmmm. A chunk of downtown Austin is currenty closed as 'authorities' investigate how dozens of dead birds ended up near the capitol. Tests for natural gas and chlorine have come up negative.

More info as it develops. If you don't hear from me, assume that Austin is in an information quarantine.


Bachelor cooking 101

Actual directions for cooking a hot pocket:
Unwrap product & insert into crisping sleeve.

Place on a paper plate & microwave on HIGH

Remove from crisping sleeve & cool for 2 minutes.

Discard sleeve.

Emphasis added

I'm wondering whether it's ok to throw away the paper plate.


This is The Bellman's 700th post since switching to blogger

It's about time for a blog crash!

Anyway, the actual point of the post is that I made the mistake of following a link to Powerline, and read:
Tony Snow did a press briefing today, and the reporters once again wanted to obsess on Saddam Hussein's execution. Not on the fact that justice was finally done, after Saddam tormented and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocents, over a period of thirty years. No! The focus of the press corps' rage was the fact that, for a moment before he dropped through the trap door, Saddam was taunted. Maybe there is some parallel universe in which this makes sense, but I doubt it. I think these journalists are stark, raving mad.

Actually, Rocket-boy John is stark, raving stupid. He's so dumb that he can't even understand the basics of the problem as presented. The U.S. press corp hasn't suddenly developed a thirst for justice when it comes to the treatment of Saddam.

Perhaps John should read some Hitchens, like he used to



This afternoon I came across a nine minute clip of Makoto Nagano's triumphant run through all four stages, but now I can't find it. So here's a short clip of a guy trying to run the first course in a suit.


[Neologism origin: 1900–05; 'logo-', word or speech + '-rrhea', flow or discharge]

Speech which is pathologically incoherent, often as a result of repetition.
2. Incessant or compulsive talkativeness; wearisome volubility.

Dark night of the frizbanontosity (free-will thread number 3)

Julian Sanchez thinks I don't take my disbelief in free will seriously enough. He may be right... I take very few things seriously enough.

Seriously, though, this is a false dichotomy:

Jason is focused on how bad things look if (as is probably not the case) the universe is fully deterministic: Our actions are scripted, and what we think are our choices are merely the upshot of impersonal, immutable physical laws playing out. But as philosophers have long observed, indeterminism doesn't seem to leave us in a much more satisfactory situation. Perhaps some of my actions are influenced by the probabilistic behavior of quantum particles that make up my brain, say. But this would just make my actions random, not free: They escape the shackles of causality at the cost of coming unmoored from agency, from a connection with my reasons and motives.

There's a third option that Julian probably considers too ridiculous to mention, and that is that my actions are the result of something at is a) not the result of any understood causality, and b) is still moored to agency. It is pure agency, in which I am the cause of many things.

This unlikely piece of a human being--that has agency free from prior cause--used to be called "the soul." Athiests reject it, I myself find it highly improbable, and Julian may argue that it is incoherent. I might even agree with him.

However, incoherent or not, it is the underpinning of all of our traditional conceptions of agency, and, I might add, is still a widely-used concept among everyone except philosophers.

The claim that consciousness is an "illusion" suggests a helpful analogy. There's a clear sense in which a convincing holographic image can be described as an illusion. On the other hand, it's still a real hologram. Whether it's apt to describe it as illusory will depend on your background beliefs about what you're looking at. Am "I" "really" "deciding" what words to write just now? Well, sure, in the same sense that when my laptop carries out a floating point operation, the "computer" is "really doing" a "calculation." Once you stop fantasizing about heaven, you tend to find the world we have is enough.

The first part of this paragraph really baffles me. A real hologram of a woman is not a real woman, just a real hologram. That is an important distinction, regardless of one's background beliefs.

But the last sentence of the paragraph is where the rubber meets the road. A very valid question to ask about my point of view is what the impact on my behavior should be. And I don't have a good answer. If I'm right, I'm not even sure it's a meaningful question.

Bonus: At the end of his post, Julian links approvingly to Will Wilkinson's list of easy answers to hard questions. About free will, Wilkinson writes,
It is frequently possible to have done other than what we did in fact do.

Whatever. I won't believe that until someone provides three examples.

(I tried simply commenting at Julian's lounge, but my comment vanished into pre-approval ether. Perhaps it will surface at some point, although I think this post is more complete.)


A game played with a bat and ball by two opposing teams of nine players

Less than a week to go until the baseball hall of fame balloting results are announced, and the tension is palpable.

Seriously, it's totally palpable.

Anyway, I agree with Mike Sullivan that Cal Ripkin, Jr. and Tony Gwynn are shoe-ins, and that Mark McGwire doesn't have a snowball's chance. The interesting action comes when you look down the ballot at the top returning vote getters. Here are the top five players returning from last year's ballot:

Jim Rice33764.8
Goose Gossage33664.6
Andre Dawson31761.0
Bert Blyleven27753.3
Lee Smith23445.0


The requirement for election is that a player must appear on 75% of ballots cast. There were 520 ballots cast last year, so that works out to 390 votes. As you can see, Rice and Gossage are both right on the cusp.

Here's part of what Sullivan had to say about Rice, the returning player with the highest vote total:
The attitudes toward Rice have softened over the years, as is evident by his vote total last year. He received 337 votes, good for 64.8 percent but just short of the required 75 percent. Working in Rice's favor is the historical fact that nobody has ever gotten such a high vote total without eventually getting in.

I happen to think that all five of those players deserve election, but unlike Sullivan (I think), I don't believe that any of them will make it this year. The simple reason is that the voters are extremely unlikely to induct more than two players in any given year -- the last time it happened was 1991 -- and this year there are more than two newly eligible players deserving election.

Those high vote totals for Rice and Gossage are probably explained by the fact that last year there weren't any strong candidates among those in their first year of eligibility. The world having turned, their totals will probably drop this year. There is, though, hope for the future. The only sure-fire hall of famer arriving on to the ballot in the next couple of years is Rickey Henderson in 2009, so there should be room to elect a few borderline guys next year or the year after.

Hey hell I pay the price

Near the end of an article reporting scientific evidence for the claim that employees work more efficiently when paired with more efficient co-workers, Slate's Tim Harford throws this in:
There are, broadly, two explanations. One is that workers are spurred to greater efforts when contemplating the superior speed of their colleague. This is psychologically plausible but economically irrational. A more cynical explanation is that workers do not like it when faster colleagues are looking at them, because they fear being accused of slacking off. |Slate|

What the evidence showed was that there was a strong correllation between increased efficiency and falling under the gaze of a relatively more efficient worker. Leaving aside Harford's guesses about the underlying psychology, I don't see what's so cynical about the thought that observation motivates people to work work more efficiently. Sensitivity to the judgements of one's peers, it seems to me, is a necessary condition for the very existence of human civilization.

Two other quick thoughts. First, I think that Harford's valorization of individual contemplation is, as a matter of intellectual history, linked in interesting ways to the free will debate. Without going into detail let me just say that I think that a lot of this goes back to ideas that were introduced aroud the time of the Protestant Reformation. Second, I'd be curious to see what sort of hay feminist scholars can make of this line of research. My own experience is that when you start talking about the male gaze to the uninitiated they roll their eyes, so it would be helpful to be able to cite scientists rather than theorists when making assertions about the coercive effects of a gaze.

Dumb-game blogging

We haven't had a lot of dumb games of late, so let me introduce Bowman Prelude. I recommend reading the help screens before starting, or at the very least, switching to Auto Aim as soon as you begin. Let me know if any of you crack level 30... I'm stuck.


Free will thread number 2

Despite what a compatabilist would argue, if determinism is true, it truly doesn't matter what you think or do.

Julian Sanchez is discussing a very weak type of determinism (in which our desires and methods of reason are affected by extrinsic forces). I believe in "true," or at least stronger, determinism, in which the very idea of free will is an illusion. We are nothing more than wind-up machines and there is no way to choose anything other than what you are about to choose.

To my mind, this renders all human endeavors to be somewhat of a bad joke. What's the point in punishing someone for doing something when there is really no free agent there who "did" that thing? What's the point of even having this conversation? You may be compelled to respond, but just keep in mind that "you" don't exist. You are a living, breathing player piano. There is no changing your tune.

Someone with a computer bigger than the universe and enough data about where you started out could predict not only the moment of your death, but also the exact thought process that will lead you to choose cheerios over wheaties tomorrow morning. Of course, someone with those sorts of resources would already know that their own consciousness was simply an illusion and would probably use those resources to take a long vacation instead.

The only refuges from this bleak view appear to be new science and old religion, and I don't hold out much hope for either.

That settles it

Hey look! These two recent articles have prompted a couple of prominent bloggers to post about the philosophical problem of Free Will. As Julian points out, it's more or less an orthodoxy among philosophers these days to think that the truth of determinism offers no threat to the notion of responsibility. For those of you who love teh jargon, this position is called compatibilism.

Lots of non-philosophers, not having been conditioned to accept the orthodoxies of the field, find compatibilism to be counter-intuitive. So, consider one of the ways that we often read tragic literature. On the reading I am thinking of, the protagonist's actions, and eventually his fall, arise inexorably from features of his character which are pre-set and beyond his control. Everything that happens is, to put it another way, determined. And yet we don't find that the predictability of it all detracts from our inclination to see the character as responsible for his actions.

Since Jason admitted in comments some time ago that one of his beloved views is that the universe is deterministic, I'm sure this will lead to an exciting comment thread.

To serve man

Federal officials say it was probably just some weird weather phenomenon, but a group of United Airlines employees swear they saw a mysterious, saucer-shaped craft hovering over O'Hare Airport in November.

The workers, some of them pilots, said the object didn't have lights and hovered over an airport terminal before shooting up through the clouds, according to a report in Monday's Chicago Tribune.

The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledged that a United supervisor had called the control tower at O'Hare, asking if anyone had spotted a spinning disc-shaped object. But the controllers didn't see anything, and a preliminary check of radar found nothing out of the ordinary, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said.

"Our theory on this is that it was a weather phenomenon," Cory said. "That night was a perfect atmospheric condition in terms of low (cloud) ceiling and a lot of airport lights. When the lights shine up into the clouds, sometimes you can see funny things."

The FAA is not investigating, Cory said. |CNN|


The semiotics of the execution

Aside from my universal opposition to the death penalty, I don't much care what happened to Saddam Hussein or his remains, at least not for Saddam's sake. However, for the sake of Iraq and the success of that country, I need to ask:

Why aren't his executioners wearing some sort of uniform?

Shouldn't they be wearing the uniform of the Iraq army or police? These guys are dressed like thugs, like members of a death squad. Which, I suppose, is their uniform. They are in the uniform of the Muslim extremists who have been kidnapping and executing people in the name of Islam. The only way they could look more like our enemies is if they wore robes and, instead of hanging Saddam, they beheaded him.

2007 begins with a big "WTF?"

I don't know what to say about Darrent Williams getting killed in a drive-by shooting this morning, except to say that it really tempers my happiness about Denver's loss yesterday and the resultant playoff slot for my hapless Kansas City Chiefs. There is no information about what actually motivated the shooter at this point (or if he/she even knew who was in the hummer that got sprayed) but I can't help but think of Columbian soccer casualty Andres Escobar. If it's anything like that, Denver fans are going to get a whole new scary reputation.
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