31 March 2012

The Significance of Free Will

I've recently purchased The Significance of Free Will, by Robert Kane (1998).

I had heard that Kane is one of the few remaining free-willist/incompatibilists among contemporary academic philosophers. As to his academic credentials: he is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and editor of a widely respected collection of essays on the broad subject, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will.

Compatibilism in philosophy is the view that freedom in any important sense of the word is perfectly compatible with the deterministic character of human thoughts, will, and actions. This is, of late, the view for example of Daniel Dennett.

Those who reject that, then, are incompatibilists. Among incompatibilists, there are those who say that since the ideas of freedom and determinism are incompatible -- since determinism is true -- we'll have to learn to live without outdated notions of freedom. That seems to be B.F. Skinner's view in Walden Two for example. On the other hand, there are incompatibilists who agree that the two are incompatible but contend that it is determinism we have to learn to live without.

Regular readers will know that I am of the view that William James got these matters more-or-less right.

James was a compatibilist in one sense. He did believe that determinism is compatible with notions of moral worth or blame: "instinct and utility between them can safely be entrusted to carry on the social business of punishment and praise" in any event, he wrote.

But he was an incompatibilist in another, and to him a more important, sense. He believed determinism incompatible with a deep human desire for a world with a plurality of forces, and one in which novelties come about through the relations and contentions of those forces.  Furthermore, his reaction to that incompatibility was the free-willist one: we aren't so determined, after all.

"The indeterminism with its maggots, if you please to speak so about it, offends only the native absolutism of my intellect, -- an absolutism which, after all, perhaps, deserves to be snubbed and kept in check. But the determinsim with its necessary carrion, to continue the figure of speech, and with no possible maggots to eat the latter up, violates my sense of moral reality through and through."

Isaiah Berlin adopted a position much like James' in his Four Essays on Liberty (1969). Indeed, Berlin was if anything a more thorough incompatibilist than James. He wrote that if he were convinced that acts of human choice "were themselves wholly determined by factors not within the individual's control ... I should certainly not regard him as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy. In such circumstances the concept of worth and desert, as these terms are now used, would become empty for me."  

Most philosophers who have written about the subject recently take a compatibilist stance. The dissenters adopt the determinist sort of incompatibilism. Free-willist incompatibilists -- outside the ranks of those working from a specific theological/ecclesiological program -- are quite few.  So I was happy to discover that Robert Kane exists.  I will have to see if the particulars of his argument warrant my happiness.

30 March 2012

Prometheus: Natural Laws Can't Be Patented

The Supreme Court of the United States has re-affirmed the long-standing principle that laws of nature can not be patented, via its March 20 decision, Prometheus Laboratories v. Mayo Collaborative Services.

You can find the decision with one click.

I last had something to say about the underlying litigation in this blog a little over a year ago, when the Federal Circuit held in favor of Prometheus Labs,

Coming on top of the June 2010 decision in Bilski this is a new piece of evidence that this court believes patent laws have become too restrictive, that the domain of truly common knowledge, accessible to all, needs to be widened.,

In Bilski, you may remember, the Supreme Court reinvigorated a similar principle, one that disallows the patenting of abstract ideas. If carried to its logical conclusion, the argument that you can't patent abstractions would dis-allow all software patents, since "software" is by definition an abstraction. It isn't at all clear how logical the Court is willing to be, but what is clear is that in general it has decided to trim the bush of patentability.

On Monday, March 26, the Supreme Court sent a similar case, Myriad Genetics, back to the Federal Circuit for reconsideration in light of its new Prometheus ruling.  Myriad Genetics isn't exactly on all fours, I would caution the patent-dove side of that case against over-confidence at this point. But SCOTUS does seem to be dropping hints that its work of reforming patent law is not yet complete, and that it would apreciate reinforcements.

I'll just offer one brief quote from the Prometheus decision for now. In its unanimous decision, by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court cited an amici brief by an important line-up of friends, "The American Medical Association, the American College of Medical Genetics, the American Hospital Association, the American Society of Human Genetics, the Association of American Medical Colleges,the Association for Molecular Pathology, and other medical organizations" who together said that if "claims to exclusive rights over the body’s natural responses to illness and medical treatment are permitted to stand, the result will be a vast thicket of exclusive rights over the use of critical scientific data that must remain widely available if physicians areto provide sound medical care."

So they are trimming a "thicket" (as above) rather than a bush.  I stand corrected.
I think it's the right move, whatever vegetative metaphor is to be employed.

29 March 2012

Fermat's Last Tango

I recently watched a DVD of the musical comedy Fermat's Last Tango,  produced by The Clay Mathematics Institute.

I may discuss the production in greater depth at some point next week.  Right now I'd just like to record the lyrics of one of the songs: Your Proof Contains a Hole.

Just a bit of background information first. This scene takes place in a quasi-heaven called "The AfterMath," where famous mathematicians live out their immortality. The bulk of the song is sung by Fermat, who believes his own immorality requires the insolubility of his theorem. He is singing to Daniel Keanes, a fictionalization of Andrew Wiles, who though still very much alive is visiting the AfterMath.

The chorus consists of AfterMath regulars: Euclid; Pythagoras; Newton; Gauss.

Without further ado, then....

Fermat: Your proof contains a flaw, Professor Keane,
               It destroys the whole foundation of your finely tuned machine:
               I hate to be a spoilsport, I know it was your goal
               But your proof contains a big fat hole.

Keane: A hole?
Chorus: A hole?
Keane: My proof contains a hole?

Fermat: I didn't want to be the one to saaaay
               I know this is upsetting, please show some self-control
               But your proof contains a big fat hole.

25 March 2012

Philosophy: Some Terminology Changes

By the late 19th century, philosophers had formulated three theories about the nature of truth.

Before I should say any more, I should add: they were all using the word "truth" in a way that contemporary philosophers would not. They all meant, not "truth" specifically, as a property of belief -- but KNOWLEDGE of truth, as the reason why we know truths, when we do.

The three classical theories were these: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism.

According to the correspondence theory, a belief is true when it accurately copies a fact in the world. As Wittgenstein said, in his usual straightforward style, "In order to tell whether a picture is
true or false we must compare it with reality."

The correspondence theory carried with it some pretty heavy metaphysical baggage. Suppose I'm looking at a painted portrait of John Smith. If I want to decide whether that's a "true" portrait of
John Smith, I can go up to John himself, get a good like at him, then decide whether the likeness is an accurate one.

But even then, we should say that the portrait is either realistic or not. A surrealistic portrait of John Smith, painted say by Salvador Dali, might be as "true" in its own way as anything that can come out
of a camera in the noontime sun, but it would be true in a non-copyist way.

Furthermore, that is a very bad metaphor for my efforts to know the world. After all, both the portrait and the man who sat for it are facts outside of my skull -- I have the same kind of access to the
one as to the other. An analogy to that sort of comparison gets us nowhere if what is in question is the nature of truth/knowledge about people and paintings both.

The coherence and pragmatic theories of knowledge were both efforts to get rid of the metaphysical baggage of correspondence, or the copy theory. They both said that there is something about some of my experiences, my ideas, my beliefs, etc. that makes them true -- and that something isn't a transcendence of the whole body of my experience by the way that it relates to itself, the way the parts of it relate to one another.

In the coherence view, error is inconsistency. If I could only get all my beliefs into a single coherent whole, I would know them as true -- or, strictly, I would know them as the whole single shining
body of Truth itself.

In the pragmatic view, error is failure. Beliefs guide me through experiences well or poorly, they are valuable when they lead me where I want to go, harmful when they get me lost. Truth, then, is success.

The tendency in Anglo-American philosophy since about the 1930s has been to distinguish sharply between the issue of truth and the issue of knowledge, then to render the notion of truth impoverished. To say "it is true that this computer is working" is just to say, with a little extra emphasis perhaps, that "this computer is working" -- the word "true" is the emphasis, but in terms of strict meaning its

I've said all this before, but what I'd like to emphasize today is that it isn't only pragmatism that needs restatement in order to become comprehensible within contemporary philosophical jargon. It is each
of the original three positions. They all turn out, in 21st century terms, to have been more about knowledge -- and even more specifically one's WARRANT for a true belief -- than about truth as

The correspondence theory looks backward for warrant, for evidence that the copy derives casually from the thing copied.

The coherence theory looks inward for warrant, and worries whether all parts of a world view cohere.

The pragmatic view would LIKE to look forward -- but since the success or failure of this moment's forward looks is necessarily still unsettled, it adapts by looking backward at earlier instances
of successful forward look, and imitating whatever made them succeed.

24 March 2012

Apple Stock Price and Dividends

Apple this week announced that it will be paying dividends. This has set off, or re-invigorated, some fascinating debates, at places such as Felix Salmon's wonderful blog, about the connection between dividends and stock prices.

Neither in theory not empirically is the relationship obvious. Yes, as Felix says, "if cash leaves the company and goes right into shareholders' pockets, the value of what's left behind goes down, not up."  If you treat the payment of a dividend as a one-time event, it necessarily reduces the asset side of the balance sheet, thus also reducing the equity side.

Confirming that conclusion through evidence of actual stock price moves is tricky, though, simply because there are always a number of possible explanations for any given price move. But in 1986 the  "Journal of Financial Economics" ran a study that looked at the value of options for stocks that pay dividends, and movements in the prices of those options around the announcement of a coming dividend. It found that a  decline in the value of the underlying stock is implicit in options prices.

Dividend policy over time is another matter. It is intuitively plausible that a track record of paying dividends makes companies attractive, serving as a signal of their health and rewarding ownership with cash.

Apple hardly needs to signal that it is healthy these days. This leaves us with the question of the "reward" value of a cash payment. Without dividends, my reward for owning Apple is supposed to be the higher price, and my right to sell some of my shares to get the cash. Getting dividends is an easier sort of reward. It is as if a pigeon in a Skinner box no longer has to press the lever to get the pellet of grain -- the experimenter hands the pigeon the pellet. I suppose you'd get lazier pigeons, but over time that would become the more popular box, for pigeons with a choice.

Here's a link to a somewhat more sophisticated discussion of the economics of it.

23 March 2012

Mike Daisy and the Truth

The big exposé of Apple's practices at that notorious Foxconn factory in China turns out to have been, at least in some large part, fabricated.

Back in January the radio program This American Life, produced by a public radio station in Chicago, ran an excerpt from a one-man show by Mike Daisey. The full one-man show was known as "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," and it purported to tell the story of Daisey's personal investigation of the way in which iPhones and other iStuffs are manufactured.

The pertinent excerpt that served as an episode of This American Life, titled "Mr Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory," aired in January 6, 2012. It had a huge impact. In podcast form it was downloaded 888,000 times. Heck, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show jumped on board the bandwagon, just ten days after that radio broadcast. [To be clear: Stewart's segment on Foxconn/Apple/China makes no specific reference to Daisey, or to the specific elements in Daisey's story I discuss below.]

Turns out some people were wondering about Daisey's veracity as soon as they heard his tales. One of the wondering ones was Rob Schmitz, the Shanghai-based correspondent for Marketplace, a publication of American Public Media.

Rob Schmitz knew China and knew something about Apple. But he did more than wonder about Daisey, he found and spoke with the Chinese woman who served as Daisey's interpreter on his trip to China. Her name is Li Guifen, although her professional name (when working with westerners) is Cathy Lee.

At any rate, Ms Lee says that some of the key conversations in the monologue, included in the radio excerpt, didn't happen. For example, Daisey claimed to have met and spoken (through his interpreter!) with workers who had been greviously injured by a neurotoxin, N-Hexane, while working on the assembly line.

Schmitz asked her whether she and Daisey had in fact met with workers who met Daisey's description of the injured interviewees. She said simply, No." He followed up, had anybody talked to them about Hexane?  Says that interpreter: "Nobody mentioned the Hexane."

When Daisey was confronted about such matters by Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, he admitted that he had lied to Glass before the broadcast. He has offered various justifications for his lies. In the stage monologue, the original context, they aren't lies he says because that is art. The lies he told to get them on This American Life, persuading Glass that it was all literally true, well, he sounds a bit like Truman Capote who also took liberties with fact in his infamous book, In Cold Blood, which deliberately straddled fiction and non-fiction. But one has to be clear which of those one is doing. The straddling is the problem, not a justification!

Jack Shafer puts it well.

"That would be an ideal subject for a one-man theatrical performance."

From the fact that Daisey stinks one cannot conclude of course that Foxconn, or Apple, are above reproach. Schmitz has been very clear about that. He has been interviewed on this point: Factory Working Conditions.

What Daisey seems to have done is to exaggerate actual problems for dramatic effect.  Let us not sugar coat it: There have been Hexane poisonings in China. And in factories that are part of Apple's supply chain, too. The fact that they weren't at the factory Daisey visited doesn't make them unimportant. Still, it makes his dishonesty, if anything, more culpable than it might have been if it had been made up out of whole cloth. If you're going to expose something because you think in doing so you're making a difference: get it right.

I'll give Schmitz the last word: "From what we know these are rare occurrences in Apple’s supply chain. Life at factories that make Apple products is not all hunky-dory, but the truth is much more complicated than how Daisey’s portrayed the situation."

22 March 2012

Detail from the history of US home financing

Here's a passage from the book Fixing the Housing Market, by Franklin Allen at al.

In chapter 2, the authors are engaged in some historical stage setting. They write that a major result of the 1890s economic downturn in the U.S. was "the virtual elimination of the so-called national institutions [in the building-and-loan market.]. This type of institution developed in the 1880s by gathering deposits and making mortgage loans on a national scale through the use of branch offices and the mail. Although the downturn of the 1890s hit both nationally based and locally based institutions, local associations attributed their problems to the improper loan strategy and subsequent failures of the national institutions. They claimed that customers were unable to distinguish between the two types of firms during the panic of 1893. The increased competition engendered by the nationals also led to the establishment of the US.League of Local Building and Loan Associations. This group became very influential during the subsequent years and successfully lobbied the state legislature to curb the acrtivities of the national associations, a move that eventually drove the nationals out of business."

18 March 2012

Iran, Nukes, Peace: Part II

In my post yesterday, I established to my own satisfaction that Israel (though not the United States) is rational to be concerned about the possibility that Iran, a country whose leaders do want the destruction of Israel, may be close to accomplishing the development of an atomic device, one that might in turn be implanted into a missile capable of reaching Israeli territory.

This is based largely upon an IAEA report about which we can say that even those who argue with that conclusion use the IAEA's authority for their own selective purposes.

Now the question: so what? I submit that Israel, to its credit, has thought more like an enterprise than a sovereign. A profit-making enterprise wants to solve problems in the lowest cost and lowest risk manner available. The "profit" here is the security and prosperity of Israelis. What is the lowest cost, lowest risk, way of protecting that profit against the threat caused by an Iranian nuke program?

Stuxnet, the computer worm, comes to mind.

That may have set back any Iranian program by about a month.

And yes, something more violent comes to mind too, but it has been a very targeted violence, not aimed at whoever happens to be in the way of a bomb, but aimed squarely at the would-be Oppenheimers or Fermis of Iran, those working to create the threat to millions of Israelis. And, logically, should they be invulnerable?

I wrote about this here. The money quote:

Imagine if, in 1944, the government of Japan had learned what Fermi and Oppenheimer and other scientists working in the US were up to: the creation of a new bomb that could wipe out an entire city in a single puff of radioactive smoke.

Would it have been wrong, would it have been a war crime, for Japanese agents to seek to kill some of the key scientists?

Probably, in your estimation as in mine: not. It would have been a good deal more humane than the way sovereigns in fact do engage in war, that one and others.

For that matter, targeting those who are making the device that may kills millions of your citizens if you don't stop them is remarkably efficient in means-ends terms.

Here as with Stuxnet the only thing to be regretted is that such a measure may do no more than buy some little time.

A longer-term solution, still quite cost efficient, would be for Israel to team up with the Saudis. It could assist them with a nuclear program. After all, the Saudis (who are Sunni) can hardly be expected to sit quietly while the one great Shiite power develops a nuclear stockpile unique to the Persian Gulf region. If persuaded of the necessity, the Saudis, who certainly have the money to do so, could develop a deterremce-capable force next door to Iran. For reasons I discussed yesterday, I would expect them to do so, if at all, quite openly. Deterrence is open, not secretive.

Yes, a Saudi/Israeli alliance sounds unlikely, but so do lots of alliances:
Like the one that stopped Jersey.

So Israel does have options to protect itself short of massive strikes -- with the possibility of a 3d world war -- now under so much ardent discussion.

Again, think about businesses versus sovereigns. Some businesses find themselves in a situation where waste makes sense, if that waste is subsidized by someone else. Suppose hypothetically I'm running a road construction company. The actual traffic needs would be well served by a two-lane road, and I am confident my company can do that inexpensively. But the government that is paying me, for whatever reason, wants a four-lane highway there. Perhaps local interests believe their area will derive prestige from a large highway. So the local interests demand a four lane design, the politicians go along with that, and I am told that my firm can have the extra revenues needed for all four lanes at a larger profit margin than I had expected from two.

Israel is in the position of my hypothetical road construction company. Rationally, if left to their own devices, they would pick the wise and short-of-war route for preserving their own safety. But if a superpower underwrites them, and its chief executive says "I've got your back," Israel may end up in in a position where risking war comes to seem rational.

The United States should stop putting them in that position. Events will be better for Iranians, for Americans, for every nation in the Middle East, and for Israel itself, if the U.S. is less insistent than it has been that we have Israel's "back." We are the ones engaged in the absurd prestige-based subsidy for the four-lane highway.  And the unnecessary third and fourth lanes could do an awful lot more harm in this situation than my too-tame analogy has suggested.

In my recent book, Gambling with Borrowed Chips, I devoted one chapter to the role that fuel prices may have (but probably did not) pay in the financial crisis of 2007-08.

I began that chapter with these words: "I don't plan yet another thumb-sucking discussion of 'energy policy.' Those who care about my personal views know that I believe the U.S. policy of reliance upon foreign sources of crude is a disaster, and depends upon the use of our superb armed forces as security forces for  distant unreliable pipeline and shipping lanes. We can move toward a better way of doing business that won't involve fighting hree wars at a time and, I am confident, in time we will."

In the meantime, since we are committed to keeping open all those readily closed shipping lanes and protecting all those pipelines, we are also commited to cultivating Israel as an ally -- beyond our own best interests, and beyond theirs.

17 March 2012

Iran, Nukes, Peace: Part I

I didn't see it when it came out but, due to continuing controversy, I recently bumped into the International Atomic Energy Agency's report on developments with regard to nuclear energy within the Islamic Republic of Iran, a report issued in November 2011. For those who want a link: here.

One big issue these days is whether Iran has been preparing a bomb of a sort -- or preparing for a situation in which it could rapidly assemble a bomb in a final few-weeks-long breakout -- that could reasonably instigate an Israeli pre-emptive strike, and even what seems to have been the assassination of Iranian nuke scientists by the Mossad.

Here are some pertinent passages from the IAEA:  "Since 2002, the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile, about which the Agency has regularly received new information." That's a ten-year period (but who's counting?) -- time enough to have accomplished something.

More recent news?  The IAEA has "had direct discussions with a number of individuals who were involved in relevant activities in Iran, including ... an interview with a leading figure in the nuclear supply network," i.e. a clandestine international network that provides goods, services, and information pertinent to weaponization of nuclear materials.

In general, the IAEA says that it "has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme. After assessng carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible."
In general, the report uses diplomatic language but leaves one with the clear  impression that Iran does not now have nuclear weapons, but has been working toward that end, and will likely have nuclear weapons in the near future if not blocked.

I recently came across -- was directed to -- an AlterNet essay called "10 Myths About Iran -- and Why They're Dead Wrong." The overall theme of the essay is that there is no good reason for the rest of the world, including Israel, to regard itself as threatened by Iran.  I applaud their pursuit of the goal of peace, and I agree that the calls for war -- yet another war! -- require resistence. For reasons I will discuss in Part II, I can't let that stop me from pointing out sloppy reasoning when I see it, and AlterNet is guilty of some. Again, here is a link.

Alternet starts off by debunking the myth that Iran already has a bomb. For this purpose, it prominently cites the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Fine with me.

As the second point of its list of ten, Alternet then debunks the "myth" that Iran is "rushing to build a nuclear weapon." I sniff here a whiff of wordgamesmanship.  Like scrabble but not as fun. At what point in the development of such a device is one "rushing" to do it. If they've been working on it at a deliberate pace, but they've been doing so since 2002 or so, they might well be near completion even without any "rushing"!

So let's just interpret this "myth" as the view that Iran may well be close to completing work on a nuclear weapon. That "myth" is, according to the IAEA as we've just seen, not a myth at all, but their inference from years of study.

Alternet treats IAEA as a sound authority for debunking the first "myth" and then simply ignores IAEA when dealing with the second. Alternet doesn't say, "yes, IAEA supports this, and they are sometimes right as we've just acknowledged, but we think they are wrong this time because [give reason here.]" No ... in making their second point, Alternet just lets IAEA drop out of the discussion altogether!

This is lame on the face of it. If they have a good reason for believing IAEA a good authority on some subjects then they should at least be worthy of an explicit mention with regard to a closely related second point. If there is good reason to reject IAEA's statements on that second point, why not let us in on it?  If they believe IAEA an unreliable source generally, why bring them up at all? 

And what evidence or source would hold weight for AlterNet in coming to believe something they don't want to believe? If the answer to that last question is "none," then that answer renders all other questions rather moot, doesn't it?

Further, there is no reason to believe it beyond them, sanctions or not. This isn't some state-of-the-art thing. This is 1940s technology. It's like making a radio with vacuum tubes. Heck, North Korea is capable of it.

A related point: the technology for delivering it is of 1940s vintage, too. You don't need a North-Pole straddling ICBM to get a bomb from Qom to Tel Aviv. You only need the sort of missile that Von Braun was making, in wartime conditions. Von Braun was working in conditions of greatre hardship  than anything the sanctions have created for Iran, in German held territory in the summer of 1944. It was high tech then, of course. It isn't high tech now.

In January, the Federation of American Scientists put out their own report on the subject. Its conclusion:  "We are still in a stage where the numbers of new centrifuges Iran installs and
their effective performance have significant effect on its time to a bomb. As total enrichment capacity
at FEP grows and especially as Iran continues to stockpile 20-percent uranium, we are entering a phase in which Iran’s enrichment capacity will no longer be the important rate-limiting step in producing a bomb because breakout time will be in the order of weeks, not months."

It is very possible, even IMHO likely, that Iran is working to position itself for a 'breakout,' a quick period of the final assembly. What is more clear is that Israeli policy makers are quite rational in worrying about such a possibility.

There is a difference between war-fighting weapons and deterrence weapons. The US and the USSR faced off for decades with huge stockpiles of deterrence nuclear weapons. They didn't try to hide these from each other. In fact, they were quite public about their respective arsenals, because weapons don't deter anybody unless the other fellow thinks or knows you have them. So if you have the weapons for deterrence, it makes sense to be quite open about them.

If you are developing a weapon for the purpose of actually using it (as the US was while the war with Japan was underway) the information imperative works the other way. You don't want your foe to know what you have up your sleeve. You'll have the work go on in the middle of a desert and keep it all hush-hush until your break-out.

Under all these circumstances I can see why Israeli policy makers quite rationally regard an Iranian capability as a real threat, and why they don't regard the sort of re-assurances provided in the AlterNet piece as being especially ... reassuring.

Further, it was back in 2005, three years after IAEA says the "undisclosed nuclear related activities" began, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a chillingly explicit statement of his intentions. Not only is there, he said, a "new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and ... growing tumult in the Islamic world" that will "in no time wipe Israel away," but even nations that merely recognize Israel will "burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury."

His intentions as so expressed far exceed his capacity. But his intentions are such as to make one want to keep a very close eye on his capacities.

Okay ... I've gone on for a bit now.  I've written books that were a quicker read than this post has likely been. But I have to say: none of what I've just said in any way justifies nor should it even excuse the rush to war in some quarter -- the warlike language of every Republican candidate for President not named Ron Paul, for example, [here, by way of contrast, is a link to Paul's sensible view].

So: if I want peace why have I expended such effort making these points? 

Tomorrow, sings Annie. Tomorrow.

16 March 2012

Game Change

I read the book Game Change, by John Hellemann and Mark Halperin a year ago, long before it became a TV movie.

In fact, I wrote about it in this blog:


I was a little bit surprised by the direction the TV movie took. The book looks at several "game changing" moments, and the title seems to refer to them all generically.  On the Democratic side there was the libidinous self-destruction of the once-formidable populist candidate John Edwards, for example (hasn't anyone made a TV movie out of that yet?). There was a debate in Philadelphia in October 2007 when Hillary stumbled badly in her handling of an immigration-related question. Hellemann and Halperin make the case that this undermined her status as the front-runner.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, one of the game changers was the indictment of Bernard Kerik, a Giuliani protege, which they see as devastating to Giuliani's nomination campaign.

After the two nomination fights were setled, there are two further game changers of note.  One was the selection of Sarah Palin. The other -- the final deciding change -- was the Lehman bankruptcy and resulting stock market crash.

Their book takes in all of this.  And a good deal more (as you can gather if you follow the above link to my earlier discussion).

For the movie, most of it has dropped away, and the screenwriters seem to have focused exclusively on the McCain-Palin dynamic.

That is the nature of Hollywood. Screenwriters simply, intensify the focus, limit the expostion, etc.  There is no reason to complain about it, but perhaps a mini-series might have delved into the whole of the 'game' and its many changes.

In 2008 the incumbent could not run again, so the winter/spring campaign was double barrelled. This year of course that is not the case, the obvious winter/spring dramatics are so far all on the Republican side.

About this week's round of voting, where Santorum won the two critical states (Alabama and Mississippi) I have a couple of thoughts. First, the "cheesy grits" thing surely hurt Romney. I gather that real grits-eaters would have said "cheese grits." Also, real grits-eaters would have respected a non-grits eater who didn't pretend to be a grits eater. But Romney fell into neither of those two respectable categories.

Second, these results finally mean that Gingrich is an irrelevance, whether he chooses to get out now or nort. Santorum is the anti-Romney hereafter.  Not Gingrich and not Paul. One can hope that Santorum, as such, will now develop enough strength to force a deadlock at the convention, in which case something interesting may happen there!

P.S. STILL NO DAMNED SOUND CARD!!!!!  What is up with that?

NOON UPDATE:  I now have a sound card, and sound.  Working will no longer feel like burying myself in the cone of silence.  Yeah!

15 March 2012

Recent books on microeconomics

These three books are taken from an Elgar catalog, their new titles on "Industrial & Labor Economics."

I haven't read any of them, this is just a marker indicating that works continues on important microeconomic issues, and any of these books may over time prove its importance.

Killian J. McCarthy at al., eds., The Nature of the New Firm: Beyond the Boundaries of Organizations and Institutions.

A blurb from Nicolai Foss, of Copenhagen Business School, observes that at present hierarchies are flattening due to information and communications technology and the boundaries of firms are shrinking "under the impact of outsourcing and viable relational contrracting." Thus, new work is necessary on "the mechanics and manifestations of this process."

Eirik G. Furubotn and Rudolf Richter, eds., , The New Institutional Economics of Markets
The introduction to this book, written by the above named editors of the collection of essays, can be read free online, here.

Bart Nooteboom, A Cognitive Theory of the Firm: Learning, Governance and Dynamic Capabilities

In this case, I offer a link to a review, written by Howard Doughty -- who, it appears, has read the book.

11 March 2012

William James on Catholicism

On another blog I see that the following question has been raised: "Do you know what William James thought of Catholicism?"

The blogger gives his own reply, which you can read via this link if you like.

Personally, I think I do have a handle on what James thought of Catholicism, so I'll offer my own answer.

The short answer is this: he thought of it as too “legalistic and moralistic” to satisfy the deepest of spiritual needs. But he did admire the aesthetic creativity with which it has always been associated, and he regretted the anti-aesthetic, stained-windows-smashing, aspects of the Reformation.
(See? as always with James, even the short answer can’t be very short, because there is always on the one hand and on the other hand. It is what makes him adorable.)

As for the theology of it, James had little patience for the sort of doctrinal structure that generally comes with the RC faith. Here is a pertinent passage from Varieties:

“Take God’s aseity, for example; or his necessariness; his immateriality; his ‘simplicity’ or superiority to the kind of inner variety and succession which we find in finite beings, his indivisibility, and lack of the inner distinctions of being and activity, substance and accident, potentiality and actuality, and the rest … candidly speaking, how do such qualities as these make any definite connection with our life? … what vital difference can it possibly make to any man’s religion whether they be true or false?”

He is aiming directly at the Thomistic doctrinal baggage of the Church there.

10 March 2012


From ANATOMY OF AN EPIDEMIC (2010), Roger Whitaker.

"All these reports told the same story.  On Ritalin, a student who previously had been an annoyance in the classroom, fidgeting too much in his or her chair or talking to a nearby classmate while the teacher scribbled on the blackboard, would be stilled.  The student wouldn't move around as much and wouldn't engage as much socially with his or her peers.  If given a task like answering arithmetic problems, the student might focus intently on it....Teacheres and other observers fill out rating instruments that view a reduction in the child's movements and engagement with others as positive, and when the results are tabulated, 70 to 90 percent of the children are reported to be 'good responders' to ADHF medication....

"However, none of this tells of drug treatment that benefits the child. Stimulants work for the teacher, but do they help the child?"

He concludes that they don't.

South Park had it right then.


09 March 2012

Jobs Creation Chart

There's a "Jobs Creation" chart circulating around Facebook, amongst Obama re-election advocates, that shows that the rate of negative job creation (i.e. the rate at which jobs were being lost) started declining in May 2009 --four months after Obama's inauguration, and reached zero in early 2010, months before Republican gains in the House in that Tea Party dominated campaign.

Further, the chart shows that since then the jobs-creation rate has been positive, though rather slow.

This is presented as a triumph for Obama, who is portrayed with a cartoonist speech bubble above his head saying to Bonior, "You're welcome. Now can you just help a brother out once in a while?"

There are problems with that, as an argument in favor of preserving the Obama presidency. First, it ignores the impact of Fed policy. Everything that has happened by way of jobs creation (and it hasn't been much) is rather readily understood as the natural stimulative consequence of all the money creation, the "quantitative easing," we've seen from Bernanke.

Second, that's not a good thing! Loose monetary policy is the problem not the solution. Greenspan rescued us from the (relatively mild) recession of 2000-2002 precisely by cheapening the US dollar. That created a few good years, and a bigger bust when the dancing inevitably stopped.

We are in the position of a severe alcoholic who starts every day with a drink, because he's got a splitting headache and he needs a hair of the dog that bit him.  The problem of course is that this just leads into another day, another dog, another headache, and the need for another such hair. Further, to cycle isn't going sideways. The cycle is heading downward, to a fatal car crash or cirhosis.

Third, the administration's "stimulus" packages have stimulated nothing.  How can I be sure of this?  Because in their candid moments, high officials thereof say as much. Including the highest of them. In an interview with The New York Times in October 2010, the President said, "there's no such thing as a shovel-ready project."

THAT we can believe. The record of government spending on "infrastructure" in the hope of getting money circulating and good times rolling is pretty clear. When projects are made ready, they amount to "bridges to nowhere." There are good reasons why the private sector doesn't build such bridges.

Which "brother" will I most want to "help out"? Whichever one realizes that truth and significance of a quote often attributed to one of the Rothschild's: "Give me control of a nation's money and I care not who makes her laws."  The enemies of a country could do no better job of undermining ourselves than we have done wirth decades of increasingly funny money.

08 March 2012

Rosetta Stone

In an issue of the Union Seminary Magazine in 1891 is reproduced a sermon given by the Rev. H.C. Alexander. in which the good reverend remidns his listeners that "Men pore over the monuments of Egypt and Nineveh, and sometimes vainly attempt to decipher their hieroglyphic inscriptions."

Such is one of the hard-to-love faces of religious fervor. It tells us what mysteries we can not solve, what efforts at discovery are "vain." The sermonizer was confident in 1891 that no one would ever decipher the hieroglyphs on the Egyptian tombs.  Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!


Indeed, the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone had been deciphered by scholars working in the French language by the early 1840s, and English-language translations of their work had appeared a decade later. Alexander was by the most generous reading forty years behind the times in thinking that such efforts are "vain."

Calling the efforts of others vanity may itself be the cheapest form of vanity.

04 March 2012


I'll try to work through my own problem with the free will defense by presenting this as a formal series of propositions leading to the desired QED.

1. As long as the numbers are large enough, any possible result of a random process will take place. [This is essentially what we mean by randomness, isn't it?]

2. The number of human decisions is large enough. [Even with only one (or two?) humans, there are a large number of decisions that will be made over time -- trim this bush or plant those seeds in our garden...head toward the spring or toward the forbidden tree ...]

3. Thus, any possible result of human decision making will take place.

4. Even an omnipotent Being cannot make logical contraries coicide -- thus, it is not a limit on His Omnipotence that He does not determine the results of a random process.

5. At this stage of our reasoning, we can conclude that God could prevent murder, deception, tyranny etc. only by removing the random element from human decision making.

6. [Here is the tricky one. This is what lies behind talk of how God wouldn't want to create robots/zombies/etc. We have to postulate that...] the random element of human behavior and the self-awareness of humans are inextricably linked, so that the one cannot happen without the other.

7. Thus, combining 5 and 6, we infer that God could prevent murder, deception and tyranny only by removing the self-awareness of humans.

8. Self-awareness is such a good thing that it merits the existence of murder, deception, and tyranny. [Perhaps because the same self-awareness is what gives significance to heroic rescues, integrity, and political freedom.]

9. Thus, it is not a limitation on God's goodness that he permits murder, deception, and tyranny. QED

There! as nicely presented as I can do it, although there are points where my amateurishness probably makes itself felt.

Without (6), the end of that rope is somewhat frayed, because the only way we can do it wothout (6) is to attribute great importance of randomness itself. Yet it isn't clear to me that if we were fated to do the right thing all the time this would extinguish self-awareness. So for me this argument (if I am right that this is the argument from free will) doesn't quite go through, and the situation justifies the move to process theology.

03 March 2012

Pressure on Newt?

Memo to Newt Gingrich:

If you don't feel a lot of pressure to drop out right now, you should.

Mitt Romney won handily in Arizona, and beat off a significant challenge in Michigan, largely because you stay in and you take some of the anybody-but-Mitt vote away from Santorum.

Personally, I have no sympathy for Santorum. None. The only more-or-less mainstream candidate who makes sense to me at all is Ron Paul, for the pragmatic reasons I believe I've discussed here before.

But Paul is almost certainly an irrelevance now. If you disappear, most of your votes naturally go to Santorum, and there is some chance of heading off Mitt. If you want that ... act. Furthermore, people might well be excused for thinking that you do want that. When it seemed (briefly) that you were the leading non-Mitt candidate, you made exactly that appeal, hoping that Santorum would drop out and leave clear the field for you to stop the steamroller.

So, if your desires are larger than ego gratification -- act similarly now.

Even if your desires go no further than ego gratification, getting out would seem to be the best move now.  For then the remaining candidates will have to come to you looking for an endorsement. And you'll provide it in your own sweet time, possibly at your own price.

If, on the other hand, you actually want Romney to get the nomination ... I may have misjudged you.  Because if (but only if) that is your goal, your present behavior as a spoiler is tactically brilliant.

02 March 2012

Matter: A Journalism Project

This looks promising:


MATTER will focus on doing one thing, and doing it exceptionally well. Every week, we will publish a single piece of top-tier long-form journalism about big issues in technology and science. That means no cheap reviews, no snarky opinion pieces, no top ten lists. Just one unmissable story.

MATTER is about brilliant ideas from all around the world, whether they come from professors at MIT or the minds of mad people. But most of all, it’s about getting amazing investigative reporters to tell compelling stories.

We’re building MATTER for readers, not advertisers. So however you access our stories — whether it’s on our website, via the Kindle store, or on your Apple and Android devices — you will get a beautifully designed experience that puts you first.

01 March 2012

Seventy-Two Stories

For more than a year, I produced articles with some regularity for Demand Media, best known for as the content providers behind eHow.

Late last summer, DM has changed what they're looking for on the one hand, and I've had other sources of income on the other, so for reasons both of push and of pull I haven't posted anything on any of their pages since September 13, 2011.

With my "virtual desk" as a DM writer, I can easily access all of the articles I wrote over that year-plus period, some of which are of a very high quality, citing relevant authority on a variety of tricky questions. I have frequently made use of that desk in this way. Its a neat reference shelf I created for myself over time.

Anyway, in recent days I've become concerned that it won't last. Sooner or later, DM will figure out that I'm not contributing any more and they'll lock me away from said "virtual desk."

Accordingly, I spent all day Sunday, February 26, creating a separate list of the best of those articles, and links to each of them -- the corresponding eHow-or-whatever article. This list with links now resides on a floppy disc on my real, non-virtual, wooden desk. It turns out there were 72 different articles I decided were worth saving in this way.

I include these notes as a memory aid. The floppy in question is green, and the file is named "DMS Keepers."

Those of you looking for a deeper moral here: look at the labels I've attached to this entry. At least one of them suggests a philosophical tie between the trivial anecdote just related and the mind-body problem.

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.