The Last Lecture

As many people know by now, Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died yesterday of pancreatic cancer at age 47.

If you haven’t watched his Last Lecture yet, you really should. It’s fun and inspiring and, for me, emotional (in a good way).

It’s difficult to know how we will face the knowledge of our imminent death. I like to think that I will face mine with a similar sense of fun and positive focus. I’m sure that having witnessed his very graceful handling of it will make that more likely for a lot of people.

Last Chance to Legally Watch Dr. Horrible for Free

Joss Whedon (of Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, etc. fame), has created a short show (in three parts) that’s available for free viewing on the internet for another day (until midnight, Sunday July 20). After that, I think you’ll still be able to purchase it via iTunes, and there will be a DVD released in the future.

It stars Neil Patrick Harris, and Nathan Fillion and is called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. It’s “A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.”

I thought it was pretty entertaining. I loved the Once More, with Feeling musical episode of Buffy. Joss’ songs are always clever and fun.

Here’s the plan/FAQ. Watch it, and enjoy.

Also, watch for Dollhouse, next year.

UPDATE: Dr. Horrible is available for free again on Hulu (with limited commercial interruption). Yay!

Campaign Econ

I really liked the Amity Shlaes column in today’s Washington Post defending Phil Gramm’s recent comments (about the “Mental Recession” and the “Nation of whiners”).

She identifies the problem of “Campaign Econ”:

Campaign Econ says the American economy is a certain way because Americans think it is. Campaign Econ competes with real economics and often wins — with damage that extends way beyond, say, the political career of either Phil Gramm or John McCain.

This is a real problem, and the fact that both McCain and Obama seem to prefer lying for their own political interests, over considering genuine problems and solutions, is bad for the country. Gramm’s advice would have been much better than any we’ll see from these two (and their surviving advisors).

But, I really liked the comment from Don Boudreaux:

“Campaign Econ” (the “economics” typically babbled by politicians) is to real economics as astrology is to astronomy.

What’s So Funny?

I’ve blogged about humor before.

I’ve always been interested in learning more about why we find some things funny, but not others.

Well, there’s a new theory (and a new book) coming out that tries to explain it.

Alastair Clarke explains: “The theory is an evolutionary and cognitive explanation of how and why any individual finds anything funny. Effectively it explains that humour occurs when the brain recognizes a pattern that surprises it, and that recognition of this sort is rewarded with the experience of the humorous response, an element of which is broadcast as laughter.

“By removing stipulations of content we have been forced to study the structures underlying any instance of humour, and it has become clear that it is not the content of the stimulus but the patterns underlying it that provide the potential for sources of humour. For patterns to exist it is necessary to have some form of content, but once that content exists, it is the level of the pattern at which humour operates and for which it delivers its rewards.”

I find this theory interesting, and mostly satisfying. Of course, one could define pattern recognition so broadly that all thinking would be covered. And then, the theory wouldn’t really explain anything.

But, I do think there’s something there.

And, I like that it recognizes that while there are some very common themes in humor (dignity reduction, misfortune), they don’t completely cover the domain of humor.

It’s also consistent with my (non-rigorous) observation that people with a well-developed sense of humor tend to be above average in general intelligence, since intelligence often involves facility with pattern recognition and the ability to play with the abstract concepts that form these patterns.

The Wrong Tool

I’m occasionally asked why I seem to side more with conservatives than progressives.

Well, I’m absolutely not conservative. I acknowledge that there is some inexplicit knowledge embedded within traditions, and I’m hesitant to change things very radically when the likely consequences of these changes are uncertain. But, I resist revering things that appear stupid, just because they have a long history. I want to do what makes sense. I want people to be free to challenge orthodoxy. I want people to be able to be weird. I don’t have to understand and appreciate what they’re doing. I think progress is made by people who go against traditions. And, even though people will often be mistaken, I think it’s more respectful to let them make their (peaceful) mistakes than to force them to conform to traditions they disagree with.

So, I share many values with progressives. I value individual liberty. I care about human welfare, and justice. I’m against the state getting involved in private aspects of our lives (like religion, expression, sex, etc.).

Where I differ with progressives is that I don’t share their romantic notion of the state. The two major party candidates do seem to share it, unfortunately.

I think the state, being an agency of force, should be limited as much as logically possible. It should only do those things that are appropriate to do with force (i.e. defend people from force and fraud, establish and enforce a legal framework that enables private trade and cooperation, etc.). It shouldn’t go beyond these things, because it will cause more problems than it solves, and may lead to tyranny.

There’s a joke about everything looking like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. It seems that many on the left think that the state is the only appropriate tool for the big problems that they see.

But, it’s usually the wrong tool.

I think that many people are confused between the collective action of civil society and that of government. They’re two very different things.

I can understand how the predisposition to use the power of the coercive leadership of the collective to address major problems may have evolved during times when tools for communication and cooperation among individuals were extremely limited. But, we don’t live in that time now. We have lots of predispositions that most of us have chosen to overcome (like rape, assault, murder…) . This should be one of them.

Now, people can solve all sorts of problems via voluntary cooperation; both via private for-profit companies and markets, and private non-profit organizations that marshal the resources of people who agree with the cause.

The primary “advantage” gained by doing things through government is that the government can force the unwilling to contribute to causes they wouldn’t otherwise support (or support as much as the proponents demand). This is a very dangerous path. Not only is it unfair and disrespectful to unwilling individuals, but this power created with good intentions will inevitably become controlled by those with the most political skill and influence, not those with the most noble intentions. The incentives are all wrong, and reducing existing government power is very difficult.

So, while I agree with many of the ends, I think that progressives have chosen the wrong means. I think they revere collective action over individual action too much, and state action over private action too much, and I think they are sabotaging the institutions that are likely to actually improve our condition and solve our problems.

So, at present, while both major parties are a threat to individuals and the positive institutions of civil society, I think that Democrats’ agenda will do more harm more quickly and we’re better off if they’re slowed down by a vibrant Republican opposition and conservative judges.

So, when Democrats are ascendant, I’ll probably spend most of my time criticizing them. When Republicans gain power and fail to act on their limited-government rhetoric, I criticize them as well.

I hope we can get enough gridlock to allow private civil society to progress quickly enough to make the government’s destructive initiatives relatively harmless.

It’s a race, and I’m rooting for technology to beat politics.

Happy Independence Day

I hope you’re all enjoying your Fourth of July.

I’ll probably watch 1776 (yes, I finally bought it), and maybe go to see WALL·E
later tonight.

By the way, if you’re on Facebook and are so inclined, you can join my blog network here (I’m not clear on what the purpose is, but I’m sure it will lead to
something or other).

UPDATE: WALL·E was very good. It did have some annoying, preachy, messages; but, they were overshadowed by the high-quality animation and humor.