April 2004

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Friday, April 30, 2004

Childish Mistakes 

Steven Den Beste has a good post about the all-too-common mistake of trying to assert independence by opposing the position of authorities, whatever that position may be.

What I didn't like about it was the tone set by his first sentence:

It's a pretty standard failing of the young to assume that disagreement is a demonstration of independence.

We hear this kind of thing a lot. It seems to be commonly-held notion that young people suffer from some kind of natural stupidity that leads to many errors that they eventually grow out of.

While it's true that young people make a lot of mistakes, it's not because of stupidity, or hormones, or anything like that. It's because they are thinking. They're playing with new ideas and often getting them wrong before they figure out how to improve (or reject) them.

Is it fair to say: "It's a pretty standard failing of the young to fall off of bicycles."? Of course they fall off bicycles more than adults do. But, it's because they're more likely to be learning how to ride, not because they suffer from poor coordination!

If I had to make a generalization about the thinking of young people vs. older people, I'd have to say that I think young people do it better. For example, I suggest that it's more likely that a fifteen-year-old will correct the error that Den Beste describes than that a thirty-year-old who makes that mistake will correct it.

I'm not claiming that Den Beste thinks that young people are stupid. His post just reminded me that many people do.

And that they're wrong.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Can Psychologists Help Make Us Happy? 

I've blogged about happiness before.

There's an interesting article at The Edge by Martin Seligman (President of the American Psychological Association), about the prospects for psychologists to help make us more happy (as opposed to less unhappy).

Interesting reading.

Monday, April 26, 2004



Ok, so I finally break down and change my side-bar on the right to include an entry for "Jew" to help knock a certain anti-semitic organization out of the #1 result spot on Google, when I find that that site no longer seems to appear in the search results at all.

Google's letter of explanation about offensive results appears, though.

Then I found this article: (ADL Praises Google for Responding to Concerns About Rankings of Hate Sites) that implies that Google agreed to manually intervene in the results in order to remove the offensive site.

I wasn't sure whether I was happy about this or not. On one hand, I'm happy to have that nasty site lose influence. But, on the other hand, I don't want Google to be responsible whenever somebody is offended by automated search results, nor do I want political campaigns to force Google to reduce the effectiveness of its searching in order to be "politically correct". The strength of Google's automated search results is that they do very well at predicting the sites that the average searcher will be most interested in. I like that, and I don't want it to suffer from the oversensitivity of the community.

On reflection, though, I don't think this instance of manual intervention will reduce the quality of the search results, and if Google wants to occasionally intervene in a way that makes sense to the company, then they have every right to do so. And, if they limit it to cases like this, it's probably a good choice for them to make.

I only hope that this intervention doesn't set them up for some stupid law suits in the future from people upset by results in cases where they chose not to manually intervene (or were simply unaware, or chose to intervene and upset others...).

UPDATE: Nevermind!

It seems like that site is back on the top of the results. I saw somewhere that it just got temporarily dropped from the results because the home page was down for a while.

Oh, well...It's still an interesting issue.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

The Draft 

Military conscription has been a recurring topic in the news (where liberal Democrats like Rangel, Stark, Conyers, Hollings have proposed it as a tactic to make going to war less likely, and recently Republican Chuck Hagel proposed it as a means to spread the burden and to boost military manpower), and the blogosphere (where liberal Matt Yglesias thinks compulsory service is a fine idea, and libertarians like Will Wilkinson, Julian Sanchez, Tim Lee think he's wrong on many counts, including liberalism).

I think that contemplating military conscription as a teenager is what led me to libertarianism (long before I'd ever heard the word). It made me think carefully about individualism and collectivism and force and governments. It seemed clear to me that slavery is wrong, whether by private citizens or governments. Not because it's out of fashion but because the nature of human beings makes their autonomy important. To hijack their lives for your own purposes is to lack the proper respect for people and their rights to direct their own lives. If you want their help you should try to convince them, or pay them. If you have good enough arguments, or have enough economic demand for their services then you'll be able to get it voluntarily. If you can't do that, then you should leave them alone.

Now, I admit that in emergency circumstances I'd probably resort to hijacking somebody's life in order to save my own or the lives of others (if I had no better options), but I'm extremely resistant to institutionalizing this as a government policy.

On the practical side (which, unsurprisingly, often correlates highly with the moral side) the case for military conscription is very weak. Currently, the military is doing very well with recruitment efforts and troop quality and has no interest in a draft. Also, it seems to me that if you want to have a check against a military going out of control, it is better to rely on young people's unwillingness to volunteer for ill-conceived campaigns, than to rely on others applying democratic pressure to protect their drafted relatives. And, if there is a genuine emergency in which the country needs to quickly boost its military troop levels, there shouldn't be (and has never been) a problem getting sufficient volunteers. It seems to me that a country that can't get people to volunteer to defend it, is likely to not be worth defending.

So, I think that people who favor a draft don't do it because it makes practical sense as a means to improve military capability. They ususally do it to effect sociological changes. Some want to make rich people die along with poor people. Some want people to become more compliant with governmental authority by going through a military (or other "national service") experience. What all of these people have in common is that they don't take the rights of individuals to control and direct their own lives seriously. This, to me, is highly immoral.

Why Google is better than MSN Search 

Because this site is the first result for a search of "toilet paper man" (without the quotes) in MSN Search, but doesn't even show up on a Google search (of course, that will change after this post).

Note: I learned this by looking at referrer stats, not because I was doing a search for toilet paper man (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Forty Pounds!!! 

Since beginning to diet in November, I've lost forty pounds as of this morning.

I think that's a pretty dramatic success, and I'm proud of it. I've met (and even surpassed) the goal I set for myself when I began.

I'm still in the overweight range, and I'll continue to try to improve my fitness gradually, but I don't think the extra weight I carry is a significant health risk any longer.


Daniel Dennett 

There's an interesting article in the Guardian about Daniel Dennett. It seems to be in the book review section, but doesn't really review any book. It's more of a mini-biography.

It does note that he's working on a new book called Breaking The Spell that "Will attempt to extirpate supernaturalism."

I wish him luck.

I think supernaturalism does a lot of harm. But, it seems to present most people with the most convenient remedy for various psychological/emotional/philosophical problems that they face. I think it will take some work before our culture evolves enough to make natural, true, explanations more popular than supernatural ones.

I like Dennett very much. His writing is a joy to read. I really enjoy books by brilliant people who write and explain things well. I read The Mind's I years ago, Freedom Evolves recently, and have Consciousness Explained on my bookshelf, thusfar unopened (I should do something about that).

Friday, April 23, 2004

Pat Tillman, Hero 

Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan yesterday.

Tillman gave up his multi-million dollar NFL career after 9/11 to serve as an Army Ranger.

He was a brave man who was willing to risk his life to further values he judged to be worthwhile. He died doing that. I don't want to die, but Pat Tillman's life and death remind me that it's noble to live, and possibly die, promoting great values.

I think that's what we should all strive to do.

UPDATE: Just to be clear... I don't think he's more of a hero because he died. I think he was heroic when he signed up with the intention of serving as a Ranger to defend us against islamist terrorists. All of our soldiers are brave, but his decision was more heroic than most because he had to explicitly choose between a conventionally glamorous life and a much more dangerous, less glamorous, path that he correctly judged would do more good for his values. His death is just sad.

He didn't do it for attention and glory; he shunned those. He did it for liberty.

Thursday, April 22, 2004


I don't have anything new to say about the recent bombings in Basra except to agree with what Andrew Sullivan said.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004


My son and I watched all of the episodes of the Firefly TV show on DVD (via Netflix). We never watched the show when it originally aired, but we like Buffy and Angel and we heard that there's a Firefly movie in the works, so we decided to check it out.

We liked it so much we've decided to buy the DVD set. It's got all of the great Joss Whedon characterizations, morality, and dialog. Although it's set in the future and is definitely science fiction, it has a great old west flavor to it as well; and all of the characters are human. It's hard to describe. But, if you have any interest I highly recommend it.

Friday, April 16, 2004


Eugene Volokh makes a lot of sense (he keeps doing that!) about the new Google free e-mail service (here and here). Google will provide 1GB of disk space (WooHoo!), with adavanced searching capabilities, but will include targeted advertising based on the content of the messages (as determined by computers, not humans).

A California state senator has suggested banning the service, based on privacy concerns. But, as Eugene says:

It's about preventing a form of marketing that some people think is distasteful, and that some people think might change people's attitudes towards privacy ("the idea that e-mail is as private as a letter slowly recedes").
I don't think that this is something that the California Legislature should be using its coercive power to do. The government shouldn't be banning voluntary services -- services that many users might find to be quite valuable to them, and to involve no real intrusion on the rights of others -- in order to prevent changes to voters' ideas about e-mail.

Thursday, April 15, 2004


The bad news is that it's Tax Day here in the U.S., and the income tax is immoral, and filling out the forms manually is ridiculously painful.

The good news is that Subway is giving away free cookies!

A few years ago, my friend Haym Hirsh quoted me in his .plan file as saying:

"I think making us go through the hell of filing, is like making prisoners dig their own graves."

Since then, I've been using TurboTax for the Web and it's been a lot less painful (but still immoral).

Anyway, enjoy a cookie if you get a chance.

Update: Check out the comments in which Sasha Volokh craftily draws me into a discussion about something other than cookies.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Have It Your Way  

How do you want your chicken?

If you've got some time to kill, go to Burger King's clever Subserviant Chicken page and tell him (it?) what to do!

The 9-11 Commission 

Jane Galt has a great post today about the 9-11 Commission (The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States).

She correctly observes that if the expectation is to discover how the attack could have been prevented and to recommend changes that will prevent future attacks, then the commission might end up doing more harm than good.

It's possible, I would guess probable, that there is no way to do this in a way that is an improvement and maintains the values that we are trying to defend. Certainly, there can be structural and procedural changes that can improve the likelihood that we will do better, and we should pursue those that are reasonable.

But, if we turn the country into a prison, or impose restrictions on commerce and civil liberties with costs that are higher than the security benefits that they provide, then we won't be solving problems. We'll be creating them.

As the post says:

Clinton didn't know. Bush didn't know. We didn't know. And the uncomfortable possibility remains that there are more events that we not only don't know about--but can't know about. Deluding ourselves otherwise isn't helping. And if it causes us to take costly, fruitless measures to reassure ourselves, it could actively hurt us.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Lileks Parental-Terror Watch 

From today's Bleat:

At nine the TV goes off, so Gnat can paint, read, crayon, and counteract the previous 60 minutes spent in a vegetative state. She wants a sausage. I insist she eat grapes first. No grapes are consumed. Well, she’ll starve, then.

I'm sure she learned a valuable lesson from all of this: That her daddy, while in many ways a wonderful man, has stupid theories about television, food and coercion.

And, it reminds her that he can be a real jerk sometimes.

War on Porn  

There's been a lot of discussion about the recent Justice Department push for a war on pornography; not just on the public airwaves, but in videos, cable, etc. The May issue of Reason magazine has a good article on the subject. And, Eugene Volokh has an excellent post that asks: "How can the government's policy possibly achieve its stated goals, without creating an unprecedentedly intrusive censorship machinery, one that's far, far beyond what the Justice Department is talking about right now?"

I find this very disturbing because the anti-sex attitude is stupid, and spending significant security resources on it now is outrageous, but mostly because this program seems to reveal a profound lack of respect for individual liberty. How people think about and enjoy sexuality is a very personal thing, and consensual sexually-oriented entertainment should not be restricted by the government.

I doubt that complaining to Attorney General Ashcroft or President Bush will do any good, because these two have committed themselves to the wrong side of this issue. But, perhaps, if enough people complain to their congressional representatives about this unwarranted intrusion and waste of resources there might be some pressure applied where it might be effective: budgets.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004


I don't have much to say about the recent escalation of fighting in Iraq.

On one hand, I'm a bit depressed that there is so much organized opposition to liberalization of the country (Yes, I realize that many of these people are not Iraqis).

On the other hand, it seems to be a sign of the desperation of people who see this as their last chance to avoid losing power for good.

And, the optimistic part of me wants to view this as Steven Den Beste does:

The most important thing that happened in the last few days is that many of the most dangerous people in Iraq gave us an excuse to destroy them. CENTCOM won't throw this opportunity away.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Not an April Fool's Joke 

This is amazing.

A self-described psychic's tip that a bomb might be on a plane prompted a search with bomb-sniffing dogs that turned up nothing suspicious, but forced the cancelation of the flight.

I propose that the government not take seriously the claims of any psychic who hasn't claimed the JREF prize.



First, President Bush proposes ending the War on Drugs, to abandon "Our failing, destructive, prohibition program in favor of focusing our security resources on genuine security issues."

Then, Kerry pledges to not mention his service in Viet Nam for the remainder of the campaign.

What a day!