26 February 2012

The Right and the Good

A poster at Yahoo!Answers asked this: "What is morality exactly?" He seemed to have gotten, from somewhere, the answers to certain related questions that went in an obvious circle, the right is defined as the good, the good is defined as the right, so that together they remain meaningless.

I like my own answer well enough to reproduce it here, with some modification and clean-up, here:

It doesn't have to be that circular. It is a good question, though. I'll give you my personal answer, largely derived from my study of the works of William James.

The right is the quality of an action that produces or participates in moral goodness.

What is moral goodness then? That is trickier. It comes in layers, though. On the first, lowest, layer, moral goodness is simply anything that is an object of desire. If you like the feeling of pleasure you get when you hurt a baby then (on this first level!), that is for you a moral good.

But we can't live on that first level. We have to live with one another, in a society, and rules necessarily develop that enable the desires of some while frustrating the desires of others. Moral goodness is a quality not of our actions but of the best possible set of societal rules (not necessarily laws, by the way -- an anarchist society would have to live by rules of some sort, customs or whatever you would call them.)

What, then, is the best possible set of societal rules? That which contributes to the best whole, the most complete reconciliation of all the self-aware beings therein.

We can discover this only through history. Human history is itself the process of finding out how we can manage to reconcile ourselves with each other.

Your demand for defintions, then, can get these answers:

Morality is the ultimate goal of human history, the goal of richness, inclusiveness, and reconciliation.

The right is defined as that which contributes to the good.

The good is that which is desired in the first sense, but in the ultimate sense it is that which is FATED to be desired when we are all reconciled.

25 February 2012

Byzantine Structures and the Splitting of Hairs

It is my firm conviction, firming up as this campaign year proceeds, that the fundamental problem in US health care -- one which none of the mainstream reformers ever address -- is the ubiquitous assumption that there are and as a matter of fitness there ought to be four distinct parties to a health care transaction.

Routine medical transactions in the US involve (a) an employee [if it is a covered family member of an employee this is a five-party model], (b) employer, (c) a health insurer whose direct relationship is with that employer not with the patient, and (d) the actual care provider, who is looking to that insurer for payment.

This byzantine structure is a legacy of the wage-price controls the feds imposed on the economy during WW2. Anything can be justified when there's a war on, right? but it had lasting effects. We ought to rethink the thing from its foundations.

In the meantime, we have the sort of insane debates we've seen recently.

Is Obama 'getting all Henry VIII' on the Catholic Church?

Not really. Nobody is going to have to put his head on the chopping block, a la Thomas More.

But consider ... the Church controls a variety of entities, notably hospitals, many of which compete with various secular entities in the business world, and it has through these entities a lot of employees, including many non-believers, whom it insures in accord with the four-party model above. It wants examption from the general requirement of insurance insofar as such insurance will cover matters prohibited by Catholic doctrine.

The administration says, 'okay, here's a compromise. We won't require that the Church provide or pay for these services. But we will require that your insurers do so.'

Now, I'm sorry, but that sounds like the splitting of hairs. Given the four-party structure, there is ony a difference in verbiage between the following two propositions:

1) You, as an employer, are required to insure your employees as to health services A, B, and C, even though you object on grounds of conscience to C.

2) You, as an employer, are required to insure your employees as to health services A and B -- we will allow you an exemption from providing C -- but we will require that insurer to pay for C anyway.

I agree with all parties in this exchange -- there is nothing to be gained but confusion by pretending that the difference between (1) and (2) is a difference of principle.

The problem, here, though, is that we take for granted the central role of the insurance industry, and of employment, and this warps all our other thinking and makes absurdities seem plausible. As John Stewart said on The Daily Show recently, if a Church or anyone else simply gave its employees cash the question wouldn't arise.  That's the great thing about cash -- it's the universal medium of exchange. What bills you pay, pills you buy, with the cash your employer has just given you isn't any of said employers' concern.

Furthermore (and given my libertarian sympathies I hate bringing this up, but for purposes of completeness I must) -- even if the government by force of law coerces employers into paying more money to a specific set of workers, as it does every time the minimum wage is raised for example, we would not generally assume that the coerced employer has anything to say about how the 'extra' money was to be spent -- on birth control pills, on Viagra, on sex toys, or even (another subject of some religions' scruples) on firearms. That becomes the employees' concern. There is no accomodation.

Were the US government to order all hospitals to increase the pay of their employees by x%, rather than imposing an insurance mandate that would cost the hospitals x% ... there would be various arguments you could make about that order of course. But the employees would be free to buy birth control pills (or Viagra) with that new x% and no one would say a word about religious "accomodation."

The whole issue of a religious 'accomodation' only arises -- and thus the hair-splitting between propositions (1) and (2) above only becomes possible -- because we're saddled ourselves with this four party paradigm.

This is all one of many many good reasons to get rid of that!

24 February 2012

From my calender

Still no friggin' sound card.  This is really ticking me off.  But for now let's forget about this, and focus on something amusing.

As I've mentioned, my day-to-day calender this year features a joke each day, taken from the long tenure of Johnny Carson at The Tonight Show.

I'll share three of these today.

On September 20, 1972, he told of a trip he had made to Hollywood Boulevard.  "So I was roaming around up there, and a nice elderly lady stopped me, and she said, 'Did you know, that in Los Angeles, a woman gets molested every sixty seconds?' I said, Well, what do you want me to do about it?' She said, 'You got a minute?'"

On September 26, 1973, Johnny told his audience:  "I found out an interesting fact about Tommy Newsom [a saxophone player in the NBC orchestra]. He's a great musician but not the most exciting man to be around. When he was a kid he didn't have to have his appendix taken out -- it left of its own accord."

On April 2, 1976 there was a bit of an archeology lesson.  "Three thousand years ago they didn't even have any toothbrushes to clean your teeth. Egyptian dentists just took you out during a sandstorm and made you smile."

Wooka wooka wooka.

23 February 2012

The objective of corporations

I see that Andrew Keay, of the University of Leeds in the UK, has written a book on The Corporate Objective, discussing as that title indicates the much-debated question: for whose benefit should a corporation act?

One classical answer, offered in a notorious essay by Milton Friedman, is that corporations exist solely to serve the interests of their shareholders, that these interests are measured by the profit-or-loss bottom line, and that any deviation from that goal on the part of corporate managers is malfeasance.

Another classical answer is the "stakeholder" theory -- the view that equity ownerships is only one of a variety of stakes one can have in the decisions of a corporation, and that corporations must be responsive to the whole range of stakes.

My understanding is that Keay rejects both views. He believes that the former gives dangerous guidance and the latter gives no guidance at all. His own suggestion is what he calls "entity maximization and sustainability," or the EMS model.

Some reviewers are enthusiastic. Harry Rajak, of the University of Sussex, writes, "Professor Keay takes the debate ... by the scruff of its neck and skilfully navigates between the Scylla and Charybdis of the shareholder/stakeholder debate." Mixing our metaphors are we a bit, Rajak?

19 February 2012

Plagiarist of Secrets

The latest New Yorker has a fine article by Lizzie Widdicombe about the "Assassin of Secrets" plagiarism case. It seems a fitting subject for mid-February, a time of year marked by stories about rare honest politicians/statesmen, confessing about cherry trees or showing the world their warts or whatever.

"Assassin of Secrets" was the name of a book written by Quentin Rowan under the penname Q.R. Markham, a thriller in James Bond style, published by Little Brown last year and recalled (all 6500 copies) only five days after publication.

The extraordinary thing about this plagiarism was its range. Rowan just didn't steal from one or two selected sources. One authority on the subject, Edward Champion, found more than 34 acts of theft within the book's first 35 pages.

Rowan stole, unsurprisingly, from Ian Fleming. He also stole from the writer who was authorized to continue the Bond series, John Gardner. He stole from other spy novelists, such as Charles McCarry and Robert Ludlum. And, just to prove his range as a thief I suppose, he stole from works well outside the genre, such as a nonfiction history of the National Security Agency. 

Widdicombe has interviewed Rowan, who is remorseful, and she has found some fascinating material about the making of a plagiarist. What sticks to me, though, is a matter of lineage. Rowan is the great-grandson, on his mother;'s side, of the renowned theologian Walter Rauschenbusch.

Rauschenbusch was a key figure in popularizing the notion of the "Social Gospel" in the early 20th century. His books included Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) which contains a dire-sounding warning to conservatives. "Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master."

If I try to hold the ideas of Rauschenbusch and the actions of Rowan in my mind at the same time, what happens?  Do I explode?

No, but the phrase "regression to the mean" acquires a certain prominence.

18 February 2012

The Book Market

Here's a passage from an article in the Feb. 2012 issue of Harper's.

"A generation ago, America's book market was entirely open and very vibrant. According to some estimates, the five largest publishers in the mid-1970s controlled only about 30 percent of trade book sales, and the biggest fifty puyblishers controlled only 75 percent. The retail business was even more dispersed, with the top four chains accounting for little more than 10 percent of sales. Today, a single company -- Amazon -- accounts for more than 20 percet of the domestic book market....In many key categories, it sells more than half the books purchased in the United States. And according to the company's estimates, its share of the e-book market, the fastest growing segment of the industry, was between 70 and 80 percent in 2010."

17 February 2012

Ticked Off

I am not a happy camper. Staples has their "techie desk," and a month ago I had them diagnose for me why this computer had no audio.

Regular readers may recall that one of my new years' resolutions was: "Regarding technology: enter the 21st century. For example, get audio back for my computer. Get Skype capacity for it. Learn how to use -- heck, become comfortable using -- my scanner."

Anyway, mid-January, I went to the local Staples for the diagnosis. They told me its a simple matter -- the old "audio card" is kaput, they need a new one. At this point they made it seem as if I could expect the new audio card any hour. By the nonce, I left the computer in their care.

After the first day went by, I told them I needed the computer back, sound or no sound.  But I left money on deposit with them so they could do whatever they had to do to get the part and give me a call.

More days go back, and January gives way to February. They start telling me that supply problems were created by the tsunamai in Japan, the flood in Thailand, every damn thing.

Last Thursday (Feb. 9th) they told me that their wholesaler, who is only about 40 miles away from them, expected to have the card the following day, so they'd probably have it Saturday.

On Monday (Feb. 13th) they couldn't explain to me what had happened to that card, but they were sure trying hard to get me one, you betcha.

On Wednesday (Feb. 15th) they told me that they had a firm date.  February 21.  Next Tuesday.  A month after the diagnosis. I'm not sure how they can be "firm" about this, if they couldn't accurately ascertain what was happening 40 miles away last week.  But hey ... patience ain't just the alter ego of Catwoman.

I'll let you know how it goes next week.

16 February 2012

The Back Story

Much is left to inference, but as I understand it the alternative-history backstory of the events in The Difference Engine is this:

In our world, the "primary world" as we'll call it, Lord Byron died in Missolonghi, during the Greek war for independence. In the world of this novel, though, Byron survived his illness there and returned to Britain, where he became the key figure in a revolution, leader of the winning side in Britain's "Time of Troubles." He was on the victorious side of that conflict and became Prime Minister in the 1830s, lived on into the 1850s, ruling until his death.

The losing side in the Time of Troubles consisted of old-order Tories, led by Wellington, allied with Luddites, who were both equally discomfitted by capitalist technologies. The Byronic revolution was a pro-steam engine, pro-technology revolution. It raised to prominence Byron's daughter, Ada, known in primary-world history books as Ada Lovelace, and often described as the author of history's first computer program. But presumably the revolution led her life in an alternative path, so she never wed William King, 1st Earl of Lovelace. She is Ada Byron throughout the novel. (She, too, lives longer in this novel than she did in the primary world.)

Another consequence of the rise of the Byrons and the defeat of the Luddites is the prominence of Charles Babbage, fom whom we get a snippet of interior monologue near the book's end. Babbage  became a crucial figure in the government. Here is the inspiration for the novel and its title. In the primary world, Babbage planned workable computers. He called his earlier plans  "difference engines" and his later plans "analytic engines," but the novel for convenience used the term "difference engine" generically. Ada Lovelace's "program" was designed to run on one of Babbage's engines. If they had had the resources of the whole Empire available to them, and had really been able to create such things -- databanks, credit cards, and a hacker subculture would have gotten a much earlier start.

Mathematicians might even have achieved an understanding of Godel's theorem, and thus the limits of algorithmic achievement, sooner than they did.

The authors have also implied changes from the primary-world timeline in events outside of the British isles. Notably, the US seems to have had its civil war a lot earlier -- apparently during the Andrew Jackson administration. The south won the war, so that by the 1850s there are five sovereigns claiming chunks of what in the primary world is The United States. There is the Northern Union, the Southern Confederacy, the Republic of Texas, French Mexico, and the Republic of California. There is also a large chunk of wild terrain in the northern plains and Rockies, where some key paleontological digs have taken place, once the paleontologists have made the necessary bargains with the Cheyenne.

One critical character in the book is a British paleontologist who discovered the bones of the brontosaurus there, and who has acquired the nickname "Leviathan Mallory" as a consequence.

There is also, blocking off the mouth of the Hudson from control of the Northern Union, the Commune of Manhattan, a conceit that the authors borrow from events in primary-world Paris in 1871. But these are the 1850s, remember, and presumably the forward push give to technology by the Time of Troubles in Britain has sped up a lot of related historical developments.

12 February 2012

Talking about Greek Bonds

The government of Greece finds itself (fittingly, if you're into the whole mythology scene) trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Thus far, it has managed to avoid running aground, though nobody thinks it has reached the safety of broad and deep waters.

Spend at least a moment to send good thoughts to the suffering prime minister, Lucas Papademos. He has to negotiate with Europe on the one hand (and "Europe" means three distinct institutions -- the European Union, the central bank, and the IMF, collectively the "official creditors" or the Troika) and with his own country's ticked off unions on the other. In principle, there is a fourth party (though that rather ruins the mythic resonance) -- the class of private/unofficial owners of his country's sovereign debt. But, as Felix Salmon has aptly observed, the bondholders as represented by the International Institute of Finance, have demonstrated that they will "agree to pretty much anything," so they don't really count as a factor and we've got the resonance back.

Dealing with the aforesaid European institutions is tricky because it means, among much else, appealing to politicians who are accountable to a German electorate which believes that it has already lost quite enough money down the Greek sinkhole.

Der Spiegel recently quoted one important German politician putting the point in these terms, "There is no money for a standstill in reforms."

But by "reform" that politician -- Horst Seehofer -- means roughly austerity, a pull-back in social-welfare spending.

Yet Papademos' own constituents have already given him a very good indication of how much appetite they have for the sort of reform Seehofer has in mind.

Meanwhile, though, Sarkozy and Merkel seem to have made up their minds to help him through this difficult passage. This week they've developed a plan  that will steer the crucial funds, apparently they'll be coming from the European Financial Stability Facility, Europe's answer to America's TARP, into the hands of both the "official creditors" and to some (cooperating) private creditors without ever putting a single coin into the hands of any Greek officials at all.

This is unkind to delusions of sovereignty, but ... so is life.
The blogger who gives himself the wonderfully Bagehotian name "London Banker" has his own take on the matter. This is what he wrote Tuesday: "If I were a Greek politician, I could probably live with this deal. While it is humiliating to have the money held and distributed elsewhere, it is still money that forestalls an otherwise certain default. And Greece can always default later anyway, should that prove convenient ... The can is kicked down the road for another quarter, and the bankers can pay themselves their 2011 bonuses."

11 February 2012

Free Will

The admirable philosophical blog "Rationally Speaking" has taken on the issue of free will.

Jerry Coyne's recent op-ed piece for USA Today was the catalyst. Coyne said that although there is "no way to rewind the tape of our lives to see if we can really make different choices in completely identical circumstances," he considers the claim that we can, very dubious. Further, there is "not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will."

Massimo Pigliucci argues, in "Rationally Speaking," that Coyne is confused. He is working fromn a definition of free will (the possibility of inconsistent choices given identical circumstances) that by his own admission -- see the quote above -- can never be tested. Since (Pigliucci tells us) science is "about empirically testable hypotheses," science can not be about free will in the sense Coyne is discussing. So Coyne isn't entitled to draw upon arguments from neurobiology to try to make his case. That case is metaphysical, not neurological.

Pigliucci's column on the subject has in turn draw abundant comment from readers. One reader, Tom, cites a paper called, "The Pointsman: Maxwell's Demon, Victorian Free Will, and the Boundaries of Science" from the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Pigliucci's reply to his readers is largely concerned with those readers who have accused him of being a "crypto-dualist." The impression amongst much of the consuming public for philosophical arguments is that free will only makes sense if we first believe in a sort of Cartesian ghost in the machine.

To this Pigliucci replies, "that line of argument is somewhat question-begging: we are trying to find out how chunks of matter can behave in such drastically different ways from other chunks of matter, so to point out the obvious (that they are all chunks of matter) hardly helps move the debate forward."

10 February 2012

Super Bowl


(Amazing that it took me only five days to formulate my reaction with that much precision and concision.)

The Patriots seemed snake-bit from the start. They went down by two points early because of a penalty of a sort that is almost never called, but was called here to stick them with the safety.

Later, but still in the first quarter, they missed a chance to get a turnover because they had an extra man on the field -- a basic communication problem that should have been settled back in the training-camp days of summer.

And so it went, literally down to the game's last seconds.


09 February 2012


Continuing my research in steam punk as a literary genre.

I've discovered that the chapters of The Difference Engine, apparently a critical work in establishing this genre, are called Iterations. As in "the first iteration," "the second iteration" and so forth. Why?

Iteration, which literally understood is just a fancy way of saying "repetition," is a term of art among computer programmers. It refers to the looping of a program. Typically, each trip around the loop, each iteration, is at least subtly different from the one before. For example, a "Monte Carlo" program -- one that incorporates an element of chance -- might call for an operation to be repeated 999 times, with some averaging at the end of that sequence. The 453d iteration is subtly different from the 452s -- not only will the calculation likely have a different result that time due to the stochastic element, but we are one step closer to the desired averaging.

Of much greater historical significance are the iterations of the Newton-Raphson method of solving general nonlinear equations. The gist of this is that you start your efforts at solution with a best guess. If the guess is right, the equation works, and you're done. If  your guess is wrong, as is a lot more likely, but certain conditions apply, all is still good: trying to work through the problem will tell you how far wrong you are, and what your next guess should be. Then you work through that second iteration, etc.

Iterations in this sense were crucial in Babbage's work, which in turn inspired the novel and much of steampunk.

05 February 2012

Santayana and The Inflexibility of Age

Last week I discussed the passage in Santayana's writing whence we get the cliche about those of "cannot remember the past" or (as it is often misquoted) "cannot learn from history."

In the context of that discussion, I also quoted the philosopher saying this (about the human life cycle): "Last comes a stage when retentiveness is exhausted and all that happens is at once forgotten; a vain, because impractical, repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity and fertile readaptation."

A friend emailed me a question: must it be thus?  Did Santayana think he was describing an inevitable result of age here, or a statistical likelihood, or something else?

Good question.  I don't think Santayana's text gives us a definitive answer to that. But we might remember his own stress on individuality in this whole passage.  "Human nature," he wrote, "in the sense in which it is the transcendental foundation of all science and morals, is a functional unity in each man; it is no general or abstract essence, the average of all men's characters, nor even the complex of the qualities common to all men. It is the entelechy of the living individual, be he typical or singular."

In that context, I think we can take the somewhat later reference to the exhaustion of retentiveness and its terrible consequences as a statement of what is "typical," not an exclusion of the possibility of "singular" individuals who will escape that fate.

Indeed: Santayana was such a singular individual, one who maintained his flexibility to the end. I've been quoting from The Life of Reason, an ambitious multi-volume work he wrote while he was teaching at Harvard, in the early years of the 20th century. Years later, when another man might have settled into the role of defending and elaborating the system expounded there, Santayana essentially started from scratch, in an equally ambitious project, The Realms of Being.  The four volumes of this work came out between 1927 and 1940. Thereafter, Santayana undertook the considerable editorial task of creating a one-volume version of The Realms of Being, which was published in 1942, when he was in his late 70s.

So if he believed he was saying something invariant when he wrote that "repetition of the past takes the place of plasticity, [for the elderly]" he later learned better.

04 February 2012

Final Quote From Isaacson's Bio of Jobs

I've noted in this blog before that biography is a complicated art form. How to even begin telling a life?

With the subject's birth? Or is there some crucial context to set first? or should you, rather, start by talking about what makes this subject worth a biography? how to start doing that?

Isaacson begins with a discussion of "how this book came to be," wherein he discusses Jobs' solicitation of his services a biographer. Jobs began looking for someone to write his life's story only after Jobs became aware that his cancer was terminal. This allows Isaacson both to begin and to end the book with the consciousness of death.

Here is the ending:

He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds [on a God] out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. "I like to think that something survives after you die," he said. "It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and then it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures."

He fell silent for a very long time. "But on the other hand, perhaps it's like an on-off switch," he said. "Click! And you're gone."

Then he paused again and smiled slightly. "Maybe that's why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices."

03 February 2012

English Channel Widens

The President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week announced plans for a 0.1% levy on financial transactions, to be implemented in that country through its exchanges in August regardless of whether any other European countries do likewise.

According to the BBC News, details of Sarkozy's plan remain sketchy, but it is to be implemented in August, and will be especially oriented toward taxing equity transactions.

Of course the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been outspokenly against any sort of transactions tax that would impact London, and indeed Cameron said on Jan. 26 that any EU provision to that effect would be "madness."

This is not especially a marker of Cameron's Tory loyalties. I don't see how any British PM could take a different stance. London is not only Europe's great financial center, it is one of the handful of leading centers in the world.

Back at home ... Sarkozy faces an election campaign in the coming months. His rival there, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, has also promised a tax on financial transactions, so Sarkozy may be engaged in a thunder-stealing gambit here, one of those Nixon-goes-to-China things.

One final point: none of this has much to do with the currency-oriented transactions tax once advocated by James Tobin, although the phrase "Tobin tax" is used quite promiscuously these days.

02 February 2012

Steamroller Repair

Mitt Romney proved this week that he has repaired his steamroller, the one that suffered a minor break-down in South Carolina.

I now see no likelihood of anyone other than Romney getting the Republican nomination, though Newt can keep it entertaining in the meantime.

That still doesn't tell us how the end of this political year is going to go.

On another, but not an unrelated point, I was talking recently with bright finance-industry people in east Asia. They said two things.  First (my paraphrase), some of them say: buy Samsung. The year 2012 is shaping up as a good one for Korean industry in general and for that company in particular. (By the way, if you actually are stupid enough to buy Samsung based on hearsay in this or any a blog ... just please don't. Stick with broad-based indexes, some of which can get you exposure to east Asia in general.)

The second thing I've taken away from these recent conversations is more intriguing, and more worth passing on to you, dear reader. Some of them believe that there has been too much emphasis on the part of certain analysts, in London and New York, about how China is going down for a "hard landing." My sources believe there will be some contraction in the PRC, but it will be rather soft, as landings go.

I don't know whether that's true. Surely the PRC seems to be due for some sort of landing, and indeed a contraction is underway.  If my friends were kidding themselves, wacky optimists as they may be, and it really is a hard landing, a bursting of a Sino-bubble on the way, then this could have macro global implications.

Which brings us back to the politics of this campaign.  We could be hearing an awful lot about China before November.

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.