29 August 2010

John Searle

John Searle discusses language as a subject of philosophy, in this fascinating YouTube clip from 1978.

He is speaking with Bryan Magee, a fascinating writer in his own right.

28 August 2010

Time for Grown-Ups

A version of Time magazine that might treat its readership like adults?

Great idea. About "time" so to speak.

Oh, wait a minute. Drat. It's all an Onion parody.

Still, a good one.

27 August 2010

Chinese Track Star on the Comeback Trail

Two years ago at about this time the Olympics were underway in China, and I wrote an entry here about the host country's track-and-field star, Liu Xiang, who surprisingly withdrew from the men's 110 meter hurdles.

Just one year ago about this time I wrote a follow-up. Despite early conspiracy theories, Liu's injuries of 2008 had turned out to be real enough to have kept him out of competition entirely during the intervening period.

So: what is up with Liu now?

I am happy to report that he is backin active competition. Last November, he raced at the Asian Athletics Championships in Guangzhou, China, taking gold in the 110 meter hurdles. The following month he again took gold in games held in Hong Kong.

In May of this year, he participated in the Diamond League Games, in his hometown of Shanghai. I have no idea whether he came in first or last or anywhere in between in his signature event there.

Now he is somewhere in the US for medical treatment on the crucial foot. I wish him well, and hereby appoint him the official track-and-field star of this blog.

26 August 2010

World War II In Greece

I'm reliably told that August 26, 1944 was the day that Nazi Germany began withdrawing its forces from Greece.

This is an appropriate time to reflect, then, on the war in Greece. The looting thereof during the period of the Nazi occupation was a very successful element of Germany's war finance. Occupied Greece sent massive quantities of food to German armnies around Europe, during a period when more than 250,000 Greek civilians died of starvation.

The first Axis attack on Greece was the Italian invasion in October 1940. Il Duce was sure he'd have help from the Bulgarians. Bulgaria might have been amenable had the Italian government done the necessary diplomatic work. But Mussolini was too sure of himself and didn't bother even asking until ten days before the scheduled day for the start of the campaign. King Boris declined.

This was worse than a faux pas. It helped make the Italian campaign in Greece a disaster for Italy. When the Greeks figured out Bulgarian wasn't joining in, they re-assigned troops from their border with Bulgaria to aid in resisting the Italians.

By April 1941 the Italian phase of the war in Greece was over, Mussolini had failed, Greece was still independent, and the Italians had lost 38,380 men in the effort. Greek fatalities were about a third of that. Germany swooped in. Why? Other than bailing out a troublesome ally, what was the strategic significance of Greece for Germany?

There were several elements to it. One was the prospect of booty I mentioned above. Another was a matter of securing the right flank for an eventual attack on Russia. A third was the prospect for using Greece as a staging point for Mediterranean operations, increasing the pressure on the Brits in Egypt from the north, while Rommel pressed against them from the west.

22 August 2010

Terry Teachout's Essay

In this weekend's Wall Street Journal, there is a piece by Terry Teachout concerning Don Rosenberg, and his (failed) lawsuit against his employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Rosenberg had been the classical-music critic for that paper since 1992. Fromn 2002 forward he was a consistent critic of the conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Most. He wrote things like, "mediocrity takes up residence ... when Weiser-Most is on the platform." Teachout asks, "At what point does so oft-repeated an opinion become predictable and redundant?"

Intriguing sidebar: Terrance Egger, the publisher of the Plain Dealer, sits on the board of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Rosenberg was re-assigned in 2008. His editor, Susan Goldberg, said Rpsenberg had displayed a "closed mind" on the subject and would no longer be reviewing that orchestra's concerts. In Teachout's words again, "He wasn't fired, nor was his salary cut, but he was reassigned to write about other cultural matters and his byline no longer identified him as the Plain Dealer's classical-music critic."

Painful to the ego, perhaps, but hardly the subject of a lawsuit except in an extremely litigious society. Rosenberg, of course, lives in one of those. The new reviewer of concerts turned out to be a good deal younger than Rosenberg, so he sued the Plain Dealer for age discrimination. As I noted above, he lost.

Teachout asks, of both of the parties, "what were they thinking?" His editors "came off looking like a bunch of spineless small-timers who let the Cleveland Orchestra roll them" and Rosenberg himself comes off as a monomanaic. His editor has a "near-absolute legal right to make him a police reporter should she see fit to do so. This is so obvious that I was stunned when I heard that Rosenberg was suing."

I have to say that this controversy has passed under my personal radar for the two years or so in which it seems to have been ongoing. I'm happy to have received the introduction to it. It does seem ... well ... symptomatic of our days.

21 August 2010

Shout Out

Great work, Slate!

You've posted some great work recently. I'll just link to three of my favorites today.

The Worst Fortune Tellers on why doctors are so regularly wrong about time-left-to-live.

50 Years of Rat Packing actually covers more years than that, taking us back as far as the mid 1950s.

Is Sharron Angle a Christian Reconstructionist and what would it mean if she were.

20 August 2010

The P/NP Problem

I was reading about cryptography recently, even before I came across this.

I'll get back to the NYT story. First, some related materials.

I was reading, for reasons I won't go into now, about "challenge-response authentication," (CRA), geek-speak for the password protection of particular websites.

It is called CRA because a server "challenges" a computer's user to produce a password and the user responds. Anyway, the client-server exchange is a simple bit of cryptography, arranged so that the password doesn't have to be sent out into the world, where a hacker might leap upon it, naked.

CRA is generally regarded as a second-best solution to the problem of computer security by those who think it would be really cool to encrypt everything. But, alas, that is expensive and impractical.

This leads back to the NYT story to which I linked you above, and a mathematical puzzle. Define "P" as the set of all problems that can be easily solved. Define "NP" as the set of all problems that are difficult to solve, but that can be easily recognized as accurately solved once somebody else has done so. Think of a crossword puzzle. You may be much better at doing crosswords than I am. But I can lok over your completed puzzle, and the clues, and after the fact I can recognize that you got it right.

It seems intuitively obvious that P and NP are not the same set. After all, in that case, for me the crossword puzzle falls within NP but outside of P.

All crytography depends upon that notion that P does not equal NP. There must be problems (like finding out my password) which are difficult for hackers to solve, but easy for another machine to recognize as having been solved. If P does equal NP, it means everything is in principle hackable. If the two sides of the communication can recognize each other, then third parties can figure out the password, because one of those requires NP, the other requires P, and we've just supposed they are the same.

Thus, it was important that someone prove in a rigorous scientific fashion that they aren't the same. We can all breath easier, according to Vinay Deolalikar, a mathematician and electrical engineer at Hewlett-Packard.

But maybe not. As the NYT story (and this blog entry) both indicate, Deolalikar may not have the last word.

Great! Another "dismal joust"! I won't pretend that I can follow that blog entry at all. Can anybody who understands these things lket me know if I've even been making sense in the above exposition of what the problem is?

19 August 2010

An Old Joke

The long-time CEO of Major Corp. Inc. was about ready to retire. So the chairman of the board called three of the most plausible successors into his office one by one.

First he spoke to the corporation's CFO. He asked, "what is 2 + 2."


Thanks. NEXT.

Then he spoke to the corporation's director of human relations.

"What is 2 + 2?"

"I don't think we can answer that question in our present paradigm, it requires the context of a general consideration of the impacting systems in a fractal market condition."

Thanks. NEXT.

Then he spoke to the corporation's chief counsel.

"What is 2 + 2?"

The chief counsel's answer?

What do you want it to be?

14 August 2010

Back Away From the Label

Rand Paul, asked directly whether he is a libertarian, couldn't bring himself to say a simnple "yes."

Instead, he is a "constitutional conservative," which is different from being a "conservative" without adjective -- and different in a libertarian direction.

David Boaz, who is a libertarian without ifs, ands, or buts, and who might be expected to be ticked off at this, is understanding.

"But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation — or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee — believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate."

I don't know what to think of this, but in the event some of you found it here first: try reading Andrew Sullivan's blog more often.

13 August 2010

Henry James about Robert Browning

Casually leafing, recently, through a volume of the critical writings of Henry James, I came across a review he wrote in 1875 of Browning's book, THE INN ALBUM.

An "Inn Album" is a nearly forgotten institution. In days of yore one would be kept in the lobby of an inn, and visitors would write their thoughts therein, or in moments of leisure leaf through the thoughts of earlier visitors.

Anyway, if you would like to read Browning's poem yourself click here.

It was not, evidently, one of Browning's more successful works. James begins his discussion in the center of things: how did Browning fail?

"This is a decidedly irritating and displeasing performance. It is growing more difficult every year for Mr. Browning's old friends to fight his battles for him, and many of them will feel that on this occasion the cause is really too hopeless, and the great poet must himself be answerable for his indiscretions. Nothing that Mr. Browning writes, of course, can be vapid; if this were possible, it would be a much simpler affair. If it were a case of a writer 'running thin,' as the phrase is, there would be no need for criticism; there would be nothing in the way of matter to criticize, and old readers would have no heart to reproach. But it may be said of Mr. Browning that he runs thick rather than thin, and he need claim none of the tenderness granted to those who have used themselves up in the service of their admirers."

I love that! James praises with faint damns here. He praises Browning's career by the manner in which he is displeased at the recent falling-away -- he praises a talent still evidently all too evident even in damaged form -- and he works through the contrast between "thick" and "thin" that necessarily reminds me of the changes his older brother used to ring on the same terms.

12 August 2010

Does Water Have Memory?

I won't address this question today. I'll simply linkfarm it.

For a quick overview of the controversy about "water memory" start here.

If you want to see the paper in NATURE that triggered the 1988 controversy on this point, you'll need to log in to their archive.

The leader of the team that researched and prepared that 1988 paper was Jacques Benveniste. Despite the storm of criticism, despite the loss of his job and funding, Benveniste remains convinced the results were right. See a letter he wrote in 2003.

Water memory is one aspect of the claims made for homeopathic medicine. Homeopathic solutions are typically so thoroughly diluted that no trace of the original foreign element is left at the end of the process, and the patient ends up with just water. Anything more to the treatment than water can provide must come about because the history of a particular sample of water has trace effects.

The claims of homeopathy are discussed, in typically severe style, in The Skeptics Dictionary, although the treatment of the NATURE article and the controversy thereafter is rather buried in the midst of that material.

The two issues are separate, though. One can logically suspect that water has some sort of memory while still acknowledging the studies that show that "homeopathic cures" are explicable as placebo effects. Water could have memory but not have the kind of medically convenient memory homeopathy presumes!

Professor Madeleine Ennis is skeptical about homeopathy, but says: "Despite my reservations" the results of her own experiments "compel me to suspend my disbelief and to start searching for a rational explanation for our findings." So I have read in The Guardian.

Louis Rey, a Swiss chemist, seems to have come at the issue of water memory through a route distinct from any of those before him. He has used thermo-luminescence to study solids and learn about the patterns of hydrogen bonds.

Rey's results have been challenged, too. Scientists need to continue thrashing this out. I think there is something important at the bottom of it all.

08 August 2010

Unethical Lawyers

These guys should be ashamed of themselves.

Heck, the wet-behind-ears associate could see what they were trying to pull, knew it was wrong, and tried to warn them.

Tsk, tsk, tsk.

07 August 2010

A Question About Kant

On yahoo!answers, a fellow calling himself Fitzy recently asked us to "discuss Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in light of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative?"

Of course, Abraham didn't sacrifice Isaac in the end. But presumably we can discuss his willingness to do so, and his binding of Isaac.

My first thought was this:

"I don't know if Kant ever commented on the story, but I would expect that he would have found the idea of it revolting.

"Kant's categorical imperative (in one of its formulations) says that we should treat every human being as an end in himself, never solely as a means to an end. Abraham's willingness to obey the Lord in this means that he was about to treat his son NOT as an end in himself, but as a means, as a game piece in the big game of obeying commands.

"That sounds pretty thoroughly anti-Kantian to me."

Here's a more amusing take on the story.

Anyway, another visitor to yahoo!answers informed me (and Fitzy) that Kant did specifically address this point, in a text available through the miracle ofGoogle Books.

Turns out Kant's reaction was roughly what I thought it would be, though with a twist. Kant thought that since we know (through Kantian reasoning) that a good God could not possibly have ordered Abraham to do such a thing, we must infer that the voice Abraham heard was that of a demon pretending to be God.

"If God should really speak to man, man could still never know that it was God speaking. It is quite impossible for man to apprehend the infinite by his senses, distinguish it from sensible beings, and recognize it as such. But in some cases man can be sure the voice he hears is not God’s. For if the voice commands him to do something contrary to moral law, then no matter how majestic the apparition may be, and no matter how it may seem to surpass the whole of nature, he must consider it an illusion."

[That's at p. 115 of the Google-accessible book.]

06 August 2010

The Changing Nature of Micro-Lending

SKS Microfinance closed its initial public offering on Monday, August 2. It appears to have been a big success.

That, in turn, has set off some hand-wringing.

I can't really wrap my head around this controversy.

There are developments underway in the world of "microfinance" that make some of the pioneers in the field very unhappy. That much I get.

Is it the case that one person's "micro-financier" is another person's loan shark?

05 August 2010

Cartoon Noted

On the backpage of The Federal Lawyer for July 2010, as part of their "Last Laugh" feature, there is the following cartoon.

Youngsters are seen emerging from a school building. One girl and one boy are walking together, and she is talking.

She says, "Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important, Kevin. You need to learn them so you can blog."

Very good.

01 August 2010

Capital One

A passgae from Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short:

"Suddenly [in mid 2002] the market feared that Capital One wasn't actually smarter than anyone else in the industry about making loans but simply better at hiding losses. The regulators had discovered fraud, the market suspected, and were about to punish Capital One. Circumstantial evidence organized itself into what seemed like a damning circumstantial case, the SEC announced that it was investiogating the company's CFO, who had just resigned, for selling his shares in the company two months before the company announced its dispute with regulators and its share price collapsed."

Lewis cites this as a good example of the sort of situation in which a creative options play can flourish. A large move in stock price, one way or the other, seemed inevitable to Lewis' protagonists. With options, one can in essence bet against stasis, or against the minor incremental moves that cluster near the top of the Bell curve. One can bet in favor of one or the other tail of the curve, indifferent to which. This is precisely what Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley did, quite successfully, in their alter ego as Cornwall Capital.

"Soon after Cornwall Capital laid their chips [pedantic editor -- "its chips"] on the table, Capital One was vindicated by its regulators, its stock price shot up, and Cornwall Capital's $26,000 options position was worth $526,000. 'We were pretty fired up,' says Charlie."

This is a small point within the big picture of Lewis' book, but one I thought worth preserving here.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.