June 2003

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Saturday, June 28, 2003

Court Decisions 

I've been heartened by a number of court decisions lately:

I think there are a few more that aren't springing to mind.

On the Lawrence case I'm somewhat ambivalent.

I'm happy to see the Constitution interpreted so as to include private sexual behavior under protected liberties, but I'm not sure I like the Court changing the interpretations that were intended by the authors. I like the outcome when this leads to more individual liberty, but I don't like it when it leads to New Dealish expansion of government.

So, I sympathise with Clarence Thomas who voted against the Lawrence decision on strict constructionist grounds. He personally opposed the anti-sodomy laws.

But I have trouble sympathizing with Scalia who is worried about anti-masturbation laws. I know he's a darling of conservatives. He might be a legal genius, but he seems to be a moral idiot.


Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Superstition 

I was in Las Vegas last weekend. Whenever I go to Vegas I think about superstition.

One of the best places to observe superstition is at a craps table. Many people go through elaborate routines before they throw the dice. Many also claim that the shooter (the person throwing the dice) always (or almost always) throws a seven (which is bad for most betters after a point has been established) whenever any of the following happen: a die flies off the table and the shooter doesn’t call for the "same dice"; a die hits a stack of chips on the table; a die hits someone’s hand; somebody says the word "Seven".

These people have been playing craps for a long time and have had ample opportunity to observe that a seven comes up one-sixth of the time regardless of what has happened before or during the throw. But they still cling to the false theory.

Why?

I don't know for sure, but here are some tentative thoughts...

B.F. Skinner induced "superstition" in pigeons by having a device feed them at regular (or irregular) intervals. The pigeons would start to repeat whatever head-bobbing or leg movements that they did just before being fed because the feedings reinforced this behavior. Even though these movements had absolutely no effect on their feeding, they persisted in performing (and adding to) these movements until they were doing an elaborate dance between feedings!

Does this explain why people do similar things at the craps table (and other areas of life)?

Well, I think they’re related but very different.

I think birds are hard-wired to respond to positive and negative reinforcement. It’s a great, evolved, trick that helps them survive without any knowledge about the world. People learn differently. They form theories and (hopefully) improve them through a series of conjectures and refutations. If they’re lazy or there’s no good opportunity or strong motivation to criticize their conjectures, they might adopt a bad theory and count applications of it as evidence of its truth; even though more careful thought would reveal this to be invalid. Some factors that make this mistake harder to overcome are our great pattern recognition skills (noticing repeating sequences and conjecturing a cause-and-effect relationship) and our knack for selectively noticing and remembering patterns that we were already interested in. This is why the craps players think they’ve experienced things that they haven’t.

This sort of thing doesn’t just affect our superstitions. I’m sure that much of our behavior comes from this superficial learning. And it’s not all bad. Many of our idiosyncrasies were formed this way and they add to our charm. And, not everything warrants deep consideration; sometimes accepting the first plausible theory and moving on is good enough.

But, when we let some of our important ideas about how the world works be formed by this sort of process, it’s unlikely to be good for us.


Monday, June 23, 2003

How Should One Partially Support an Organization? 

I saw this article today by Ronald Bailey at reasononline about why he joined the ACLU.

Like Bailey, I support some ACLU activities and positions (Civil Liberties, First Amendment, Drug Policy, Reproductive Rights, etc.), but I disagree with others (Gun Rights, Welfare Reform, Property Rights, Death Penalty, Freedom of Association).

It's very difficult to find organizations that we agree with 100%. So, how should one support organizations that one partially agrees with?

Should we focus on the positive and support them if they're doing good things and try to ignore the bad? Should we try to weigh how much good vs. bad they do? Should we temporarily support them and let them know our concerns and then withdraw support if they don't improve?

I'm not sure about this one, so I'm interested in feedback. Please let me know, either in the comments or via e-mail what you think the best way to address this situation is, and I'll post about the most interesting responses.


Sunday, June 22, 2003

"Weird Al" Rules! 

As unreasonable as it may seem, my family flew to Las Vegas this past weekend so that we could see Weird Al Yankovic in concert.

But, we all agree that it was well worth it!

Al has just started his Poodle Hat Tour, and tickets went on sale before any concert dates were announced in our area, so we decided to make an extravagant weekend of it. It was awesome.

If you appreciate Al, and you can get to one of these concerts, then you should definitely go. Al and his band are incredibly versatile and talented and still put on a great show after all these years. I highly recommend becoming familiar with the songs on the Poodle Hat album before going, because he performs many of the tracks in concert (some completely, and some shortened in a fantastic medley). He also performs many other songs including several from Running With Scissors, as well as a great selection of older classics.


Thursday, June 19, 2003

Down With Hatch 

I really don't like Orrin Hatch. I've considered him a dangerous slimeball since before his anti-Microsoft jihad on behalf of Novell and friends. Now he's on an anti-computer-file-trader jihad on behalf of the RIAA. He recently indicated that it might be ok for copyright holders to destroy the computers of suspected copyright violators.

What a jerk!

So it was nice to see James Lileks get Hatch into his cross-hairs today:

I’ll just say that I think he’s made mostly of molded plastic, there’s a pullstring in his back, and the RIAA fingerprints are all over the big white ring. I won’t listen to any of these guys blather about computers or the Internet until they have demonstrated on film that they can install some RAM, burn a CD (“shiny side down, you say?”), tell me what HTTP and URL stand for, prove they know how to get the source code for a webpage, and know better than to click “Yes” when asked if the computer should always trust data from Gator Corporation.
His remarks about remotely destroying computers that download copyrighted material is just grampa blather. The computers are stealing music! The cars are frightening the horses! The Kaiser took my dog!

Read the whole thing. In fact, read Lileks every day. It's a pleasure.


Tuesday, June 17, 2003

The Dangerous Internet 

Eugene Volokh did a great job fisking Bill O'Reilly's recent whiny Talking Points Memo that complains about how dangerous the Internet is becoming because what's available there is insufficiently policed and inaccuracies go unrestrained.

Volokh makes many strong points demolishing the logical structure of O'Reilly's "argument". But one thing he doesn't mention is that O'Reilly's main point is false.

It's just not true that there is no restraint on what people say online. There is a powerful restraint and that is reputation.

Popular Internet writers depend on their reputations to maintain their readership, so they are highly motivated to be accurate and to quickly correct mistakes when they occur. And Internet writers do a great job of fact-checking each other, so these mistakes don't go unnoticed for long. It has been my experience, and Eugene's as well, that mistakes on the Internet are corrected much more quickly and visibly than in other media.

But, what about writers who are not so popular or who post anonymously? Well, clearly, the fewer readers there are, the smaller the problems that inaccuracies pose. And many readers have developed a healthy skepticism when reading things from people they have not come to trust.

So, perhaps Mr. O'Reilly should learn a bit about his subject matter and step into the 21st century before spreading these inaccuracies.

I'm sure his viewers will see a correction from him Real Soon Now.


Sunday, June 15, 2003

Self-Denial 

I just read another great article by Jacob Sullum in the July issue of Reason called The Anti-Pleasure Principle.

The article is ostensibly about the CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest; no, I won't link to them, but I will link to these guys). It explores their un-scientific, alarmist, headline-grabbing attacks on various foods. But what was more interesting to me about the examination was Sullum's observation that:

The group is also emblematic of a troubling cultural trend whose motto might be, "If it feels good, don't do it."

And it seems to really reflect their attitude! Whatever people seem to enjoy, they condemn and forbid: Pizza with extra cheese ("Never order" ), fried mozzarella sticks ("Just say no"), buffalo wings ("Order something else"), crispy orange beef (ditto), beef and cheese nachos ("Order just about anything else"), a gyro ("There's no way to make this a healthful choice"), a mushroom cheeseburger ("Forget about this one!"), a fried whole onion ("a bomb"), a milk shake ("Skip it"), the Cheesecake Factory's carrot cake ("the worst dessert on the menu"), and cheese fries with ranch dressing ("worse than anything we've ever analyzed").

And when some innovation comes along that mitigates the health concerns associated with certain foods (like irradiation, artificial fat, sugar, or meat, etc.) they invariably oppose it with dubious fears. It's almost as though there was some law of nature (the Conservation Of Misery?) that a solution must be violating.

What I was thinking about, and Sullum touches on, is that there seems to be an attraction to this and other movements because of this anti-pleasure principle. Many religious traditions involve self-denial and self-imposed rigors, as though virtue required misery. I'm sure these ordeals help those who share the experiences to bond with each other (and separate from outsiders), form an identity, and get a sense of structure and meaning in their lives. But, I think these means are wrong and bad and not the best ways of achieving these ends. It's even worse when they try to impose these things on the rest of us (as the CSPI often does).

Like most popular bad ideas, there is an element of truth behind it. It is important to be productive and responsible; and these things are often difficult. But that doesn't mean that difficulty and misery are good for their own sakes! It's important to get things done, but it's not better to work hard than to work smart. We're human beings. Solving problems and finding better ways to do things is what we're all about. We should embrace improvements (with skepticism), not reject them reflexively.

I think it's anti-human to always prefer the miserable to the pleasurable, and the "natural" to the artificial.

I'm pro-human. Human life is not all about pain and misery. It's about solving problems, achieving valuable goals, discovering truth and beauty, and enjoying the process.

I love the way Sullum ends the article:

For my part, I think I'll try some cheese fries with ranch dressing. They've never tempted me before, but if CSPI says they're "worse than anything we've ever analyzed," they must be pretty damned good.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Roadmap To Pieces 

Does the Bush "Roadmap to Peace" make sense? I tend to agree with James Lileks today:

I don’t think it’s going to work. I never thought it would work. The only question is how many dead Israelis it will take before the point is made, for the 3,234th time.

I understand that Bush wants more influence with Middle East countries to help in the war on terror, and that the leaders of these countries express a strong interest in the US applying pressure to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One problem with this is that I suspect that those leaders actually find the conflict useful to them. A larger problem is that a peaceful resolution won't be possible until the parties with control of events have shared goals (which include a desire for a peaceful resolution). Today, they don't.

Israel limiting its activities to negotiating with the Palestinian Authority to end the violence of Hamas and other terrorist organizations makes as much sense to me as it would have for the United States to limit its activities to negotiating with the Taliban to end the violence of Al Qaeda. They lacked the will and/or the power to do it.

Another problem is that now Bush is in the position of feeling a need to publicly rebuke Sharon for attacking Hamas leaders (I'm hoping that a different message is being communicated privately). This weakens the message that he had been communicating so clearly since 9/11, and makes it appear that he has become unclear on the concept of fighting terrorism. I think the moral position is vital to maintain here. This is not just a battle against particular terrorists; it's against a horrible set of ideas, and the better ideas should be expressed clearly and consistently.

This Roadmap effort could very well be the cause of more, rather than less, violence if Israel is restrained from protecting itself. Pursuing a doomed policy that hurts our friends for diplomatic advantages is a bad mistake.

Have we become France?


Monday, June 09, 2003

The RIAA Is Evil 

I just saw this story on Reason Hit & Run.

It seems that the RIAA sued a college student out of his life savings ($12,000) for building a campus network search engine that some people used to locate copyrighted material in addition to other things.

Intellectual property rights is a complicated problem. I don't know the perfect solution, but I'm confident that it's not to attack people who build useful tools; and certainly not to pick victims who are unable to defend themselves (rather than, say, Google).

This intimidation will not solve the problem, and will generate much more hostility than sympathy for the RIAA and its position.

I hope the young man recovers the $12,000 from supporters.

UPDATE: Good News! It looks like he has recovered the $12,000 from donations. People are cool.


Friday, June 06, 2003

The Paper 

The recent excitement over the Howell Raines resignation at the New York Times reminds me of an e-mail I sent to Eugene Volokh in response to this post.

I can't seem to find the e-mail anymore, but I believe I wrote something like:

The Internet is a bathroom wall, and the New York Times is the paper.


Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Religion and Reason 

This is not a topic that can be comprehensively analyzed in a single blog post that anybody is likely to ever read. But I thought that since I'm trying to represent myself as somebody with a commitment to reason, I should at least address the subject.

So, here are a few semi-random thoughts:

First of all, I don't hate religion or think all religious people are stupid. I have good, smart, friends who are religious to some extent, and I think I have some understanding why. I have respect for these people, but on this issue I think they're mistaken.

I don't want to discuss the logical arguments for God here. They are all invalid and have been discussed well elsewhere. One book on the subject I remember enjoying years ago is George H. Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God . I think most serious people don't think that they can defend their religious beliefs logically, but they believe for other reasons, and it's these I want to comment on. I also don't want to get into the merits and problems with any particular organized religions; nothing good can come from that.

Several people have told me that the main reason that they believe in God is because they have personally experienced something so powerful and profound that it left them with no doubt about God's existence. Well, I understand the desire to take your experiences seriously, but it seems to me that we know that our brains are not perfect reality receptors. They are subject to various influences including fatigue, illness, stress, etc. If we experience something that seems implausible, we should subject it to criticism before accepting it. Today I came across this essay that addresses some materialistic explanations for some of these experiences. I'm not saying that these are the exact explanations, but it seems to me that it's more reasonable to attribute these phenomena to natural rather than supernatural events when possible.

There are other psychological reasons for religion's appeal. One is the pressure to conform to one's family and peers. Another is that some of life's questions are difficult and there's a common desire for easy answers that can come from an authority. These questions include issues of life's meaning, ethics, explanation of events, death, etc. Again, I understand the appeal of these pressures, but I think we should prefer the truth to convenient lies; even if the truth is that we just don't know the answer right now.

When my mother died, I thought about these issues (briefly, I admit). I decided that it would be a dishonor to her (and me) to appeal to mysticism to help myself deal with her death. She was a human being. Human beings are special among the creatures we know of because they can independently understand aspects of the world, choose their values and create new knowledge. To reduce them to the status of pets who get their direction and purpose from a higher-level creature is to strip them of much of their nobility. So, I decided that this appeal to mysticism would create new problems for me and solve none.

Ok, I'll talk about one logical argument, only because it's so annoying: Pascal's Wager (basically that we should believe in God because the benefits of being right and costs of being wrong are infinite if He exists, and negligible if He doesn't). I have never understood why this argument seemed persuasive to people. To me it seems both unhelpful and incoherent.

It's unhelpful because, even if we accepted its premises, it doesn't tell us anything about God or what he wants us to do. Pascal may have assumed that the choice was between Roman Catholicism and atheism, but there are many other theological possibilities. How are we to know what God wants us to do? Can I eat pork, or not?

On the other hand it's incoherent because it doesn't make sense to believe in the fact of God because of the costs and benefits if he happens to exist. Even if I were persuaded that it made sense, it wouldn't help me actually believe that he exists. It would only motivate me to pretend to believe. And I suspect that an omniscient God would be able to tell.

On the third hand, it's not true that the benefits and costs are negligible if He doesn't exist. If we don't believe, then we'll spend our lives trying to make the most of them, because this life is all we expect to get. If we believe in God and an afterlife, we'll spend our time trying to conform to rules that promise to help us do better in the afterlife; and may have wasted much of the precious life that we had. This seems to be a huge cost to me.

Finally, if there is a God, and he set things up so that unless I reject the epistemological tools that serve me best in every other aspect of my life, He'll punish me with eternal damnation; then I refuse to respect him anyway. I'll go with the wrench.

UPDATE: Those who find the Pascal's Wager argument persuasive should probably send money to Alex Tabarrok, too.