Thursday, May 31, 2007

David Brooks on Al Gore

The Non Sequitur does a great job on the hapless David Brooks' attempts to talk philosophy in response to Al Gore's new book, The Assault on Reason. Brooks gets himself into serious trouble, but a smarter man might have seen that coming. I don't mind the plebes (sniff) doing philosophy, but I have never ever seen a pundit not mangle or radically over-simplify philosophical ideas. It doesn't need to be that way. But then, that's Gore's point.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

But Gore’s imperviousness to reality is not the most striking feature of the book. It’s the chilliness and sterility of his worldview. Gore is laying out a comprehensive theory of social development, but it allows almost no role for family, friendship, neighborhood or just face-to-face contact. He sees society the way you might see it from a speaking podium — as a public mass exercise with little allowance for intimacy or private life. He envisions a sort of Vulcan Utopia, in which dispassionate individuals exchange facts and arrive at logical conclusions.

It really would suck if people “exchang[ed] facts and arriv[ed] at logical conclusions.” The mysterious thing here is that not only is Gore lamenting the absence of civil discourse–which is, dear Mr.Brooks, a kind of civic engagement–but he can hardly be taken to be claiming that it’s the only thing people do.

What lurks behind Brooks dimwitted review is the classic Brooksian dichotomy: things can only be one way (my way) or the totally absurd other way (whatever your way is). Gore cannot be right about logic, because then we would all be Vulcans–like Dr.Spock (the one on TV). Maybe Al Gore is saying that we need logic at least, or perhaps, also.

Some, maybe like Kant or Aristotle or Aquinas, would agree with Gore.

Un-Referential Richardson

Err. Rodger Payne, writing at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, points out that we've never mentioned Bill Richardson on this blog. How odd.

Well,... Bill Richardson.


From A Tiny Revolution: all reports, President Bush is more convinced than ever of his righteousness.

Friends of his from Texas were shocked recently to find him nearly wild-eyed, thumping himself on the chest three times while he repeated "I am the president!" He also made it clear he was setting Iraq up so his successor could not get out of "our country's destiny."

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Babylonia "casts the shadow of its own destruction before it"

And then, as the Iraqi capital's landscape became ever more dangerous, as an insurgency gained traction while the administration's dreams of a redesigned American Middle East remained as strong as ever, its officials evidently concluded that even one of Saddam's palaces, roomy enough for a dictator interested in the control of a single country (or the odd neighboring state), wasn't faintly big enough, or safe enough, or modern enough for the representatives of the planet's New Rome...

In Baghdad, Saddam's giant hands are already on the road to ruin. Still going up in New York and Baghdad are two half-billion dollar-plus monuments to the Bush imperial moment. A 9/11 memorial so grotesquely expensive that, when completed, it will be a reminder only of a time, already long past, when we could imagine ourselves as the Greatest Victims on the planet; and in Baghdad's Green Zone, a monument to the Bush administration's conviction that we were also destined to be the Greatest Dominators this world, and history, had ever seen.
See Tom Engelhardt here.

And Bryan Finoki and commenter Phila here.

Chavez and RCTV

When following the news from Venezuela, if one is interested at all in understanding the situation, one must take one's US media with a grain of salt. They have long toed the opposition line. In the case of RCTV, the opposition television station whose license was not renewed, the US press has basically turned the story into one of a dictator's attempts to censor and stifle dissent. This line is so simple it's stupid.

Now, the opposition has reasonable beefs with the Chavez government. If Chavez started picking apart the press and media in Venezuela, I'd be very worried too. But he's not doing that. There are also reasonable criticisms to be made against the opposition and its media. While the Venezuelan opposition and most US media representations will decry an alleged assault on freedom of speech in Venezuela, it must be remembered that 75% of the media in Venezuela is owned and operated by the opposition. Five years since the coup against Chavez, openly supported and abetted by the station, RCTV's public airways license has not been renewed. It remains free to broadcast through cable or satellite. It has never been a sanctuary of free speech because its political mission was severely anti-Chavez and it has consciously tailored stories bordering on falsity to transmit the anti-Chavez mission. It has not allowed counterpoints from the Chavez government. Now it is a martyr for free speech?

Here's the standard story from Time: Is Chavez Stifling the Media?
And from Reuters: Venezuela's Chavez widens attack on opposition media.

Here's an alternative discussion from Common Dreams: Is Free Speech Really at Stake? Venezuela and RCTV.

And here are three pieces explaining the broader context and issues behind the situation:

FAIR: Coup Co-Conspirators as Free-Speech Martyrs: Distorting the Venezuelan media story.
UN Observer: Venezuela, RCTV, and Media Freedom: Just the Facts, Please.
LA Times: Hugo Chavez versus RCTV.

Read all of the above pieces. Now, tell me where you stand.

This is the basic story:
The RCTV case is not about censorship of political opinion. It is about the government, through a flawed process, declining to renew a broadcast license to a company that would not get a license in other democracies, including the United States. In fact, it is frankly amazing that this company has been allowed to broadcast for 5 years after the coup, and that the Chávez government waited until its license expired to end its use of the public airwaves.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Plums, Blackberries

The full cast and crew of Phronesisaical is on the road, friends; this here's just a sample of yesterday's pickins here in central Texas (pickins not pictured include oak-smoked brisket, Lone Star beer, pecan pie).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Miraculous Air

Friend and fellow blogger CM Mayo's latest book has just appeared in print: Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles Through Baja California, the Other Mexico.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rising

We have to go to Le Monde for this one, though the report was produced in the US. The gist: carbon emissions have tripled between 2000 and 2004 from their levels of growth in emissions in the 1990s. The growth is largely coming from industrializing nations (particularly China and India), while, of course, industrialized nations are still the main polluters (the US tops the list).
Les émissions de dioxyde de carbone (CO2), un des principaux gaz à effet de serre, ont augmenté dans le monde de façon alarmante entre 2000 et 2004, à un rythme trois fois supérieur à celui des années 1990, selon une étude scientifique américaine publiée lundi.

Elles sont en hausse de 3,1 % par an au début des années 2000 contre un rythme de 1,1 % par an dans les années 1990, d'après cette étude publiée sur le site Internet de la revue de l'Académie nationale des sciences. D'après les auteurs de l'étude, cette croissance accélérée des émissions de CO2 est largement due à la hausse de la consommation d'énergie et à l'augmentation de carbone dans la production d'énergie...

Entre 2000 et 2004, les pays en développement ont été les principaux responsables de l'augmentation des émissions de dioxyde de carbone, même si cela ne représente que 40 % du total des émissions de CO2 dans le monde. En 2004, 73 % de la croissance des émissions dans le monde est venue des pays en développement et des pays moins développés, qui représentent 80 % de la population mondiale. La même année, les pays développés (dont la Russie) ont contribué à 60 % des émissions totales. Ils sont responsables de 77 % des émissions cumulées depuis le début de la révolution industrielle, relève l'étude.

Vacationless Nation

Helmette has long complained about this fact. If it were France....
This report reviewed international vacation and holiday laws and found that the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation or holidays. As a result, 1 in 4 U.S. workers do not receive any paid vacation or paid holidays. The lack of paid vacation and paid holidays in the U.S. is particularly acute for lower-wage and part-time workers, and for employees of small businesses.
Download the paper here (via Dean Baker).

Our Allies in the News: Colombian Edition

Top paramilitary commanders have in recent days confirmed what human rights groups and others have long alleged: Some of Colombia's most influential political, military and business figures helped build a powerful anti-guerrilla movement that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities.

The commanders have named army generals, entrepreneurs, foreign companies and politicians who not only bankrolled paramilitary operations but also worked hand in hand with fighters to carry them out. In accounts that are at odds with those of the government, the commanders have said their organization, rather than simply sprouting up to fill a void in lawless regions of the country, had been systematically built with the help of bigger forces...

"Could these three groups -- I'm talking about political people, economic people, the institutional people, meaning the military -- operate without having contact with the chief of chiefs?" said Duque, speaking from the Itagui prison in Medellin, which houses dozens of paramilitary commanders. "That's impossible. That cannot be."...

Still, Duque called Colombia's war "dirty, slimy, anarchic, anachronistic," and said paramilitary fighters had killed countless civilians in massacres, contradicting long-held claims that those slain in the attacks were Marxist guerrillas. And he said that the paramilitary groups also murdered many union members for their "ideological posture," not for purported ties to guerrillas, as was claimed. "It was profoundly unjust," he said.

Monday, May 21, 2007

A Faucet = Genocide

I don't think it's worth anyone's time to bother taking people like Michelle Malkin seriously. But we can always laugh at them for a bit of midday entertainment.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Mountain Apples

Sarkozy and France

This blog occasionally points out how vast the gulf is between the realities of France and the American understanding of one of its closest allies, which, I think, remains a very important power in the international sphere if we take on a more sophisticated view of power than the typical economic-military might version (here's a recent post). The Independent recently reported that,
In an election restricted to French voters aged 18 to 59, Mme Royal would have won handsomely. M. Sarkozy owes his victory to a "wrinkly" landslide with an overwhelming triumph among French voters in their sixties (61 per cent of the vote) and a jackpot among the over-seventies (68 per cent).
This gives the lie to the notion that "economic malaise" and unemployment was the key to Sarkozy's victory in the recent French presidential election, although this remains the standard American interpretation of the election (in addition to going on and on about Sarkozy being "pro-American"). That is, the younger age bracket that voted overwhelmingly for Royal is also the age bracket that ostensibly suffers from the "economic malaise," not the retirees who voted for Sarkozy. The older age bracket, however, is the group that is most worried about France's identity and immigration problems. Sarkozy, in the end, was most appealing to those who prefer "France for the French."

Here's a terrific summary by Bernard Chazelle at Rootless Cosmopolitan of the roots and meaning of the recent election. Much more enlightening than anything in the mainstream US press.

"Ecoterrorism" as "Terrorism"

When law-enforcement agencies arrested 10 animal rights activists and environmental radicals 18 months ago, it was a major breakthrough in the fight against what officials call "ecoterrorism."

Among the crimes solved were a string of arsons and other attacks across five Western states totaling more than $40 million in damage. Targets of the group calling itself The Family had been timber companies, meatpacking plants, an SUV dealership, a Colorado ski resort, and the University of Washington Horticultural Center.

Now, with all defendants having pleaded guilty because of the weight of the evidence against them, including an informant who wore a recording device, prosecutors are seeking "terrorism enhancements" to their sentences.

"This is the first time in the history of the US that the federal government is seeking this enhancement for property crimes that did not result in injury or death to humans," said Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore.

In their 148-page sentencing memorandum filed last week in federal court in Eugene, prosecutors argued that "although the government was not a direct victim, it was nonetheless a federal crime of terrorism because of the offenders' motivation." Intimidation, coercion, and retaliation aimed at the conduct of government, prosecutors said, deserves "enhanced" punishment under federal antiterrorism laws.

The ecosaboteurs' goal, according to prosecutors, was to retaliate for certain federal policies related to natural resources and animals, and they were attempting to coerce government agencies into changing those policies. Federal sentencing guidelines in such cases can add up to 20 years to a sentence, and this can also mean being sent to a maximum security prison.

Remember this. I don't condone the actions of these groups, but there is a difference between civil disobedience (which by its nature breaks the law in order to publicize the violation of larger moral principles) and terrorism here that seems to be collapsing. It's not a very large step to imagine a gulag for any objectors to the socio-economic status quo.

UPDATE (9pm, 5/22):

So,... in light of the post above and the comments, let's see what happens to this guy:

Mark Uhl, a student at Liberty University, was arrested today for possessing several homemade bombs which he told authorities he made to disrupt protesters at the funeral of Jerry Falwell.

The 19-year-old student, reportedly had six devices on his person or in his car when he was arrested. Some reports say the devices were gasoline-based "napalm" bombs.

Mind Is Everywhere

It has been a while, but I used to do philosophy of mind and artificial intelligence before moving more fully into political philosophy and ethics and twiddling with other things like institutional economics. I enjoyed its puzzles, but lost a sense that the field was really speaking to problems that I thought were interesting. Part of this was a matter of what I thought were real problems, and part of it was a matter of how I thought problems should be solved. It was never clear to me, for instance, that the problems in philosophy of mind were simply problems of language, which could be cleared up and, as a consequence, clear up problems in philosophy of mind (and elsewhere). It's nice to look at some of the more recent discussion, and fascinating to learn that the problems remain roughly the same.

The central problem was and still is the relation between the materiality of the brain and the seemingly non-material stuff that constitutes consciousness or experience. We can say that there is an observable correlation between brain activity and certain kinds of experiences, and we can say that we're pretty certain that the material brain activity is causally related to experiential activity. But we really don't have the language and/or knowledge to express the materiality of conscious experience. My typing out words on the keyboard, my looking at this glowing computer screen, the birds twittering outside with a jet passing overhead, the mild temperature, the taste of coffee on my tongue, various ideas and memories flitting in and out of the forefront of consciousness, my saturating sense of dread at finishing up grading papers today, and so on comprise the experience of here-now that I'm having here-now. That experience is not experienced as synapses firing or the interaction of various bits of gray matter and electrical charges. The question is: how can matter have experiences, how can matter be conscious? This is the so-called "hard problem."

Jerry Fodor discusses Galen Strawson's latest book in "Headaches Have Themselves" in the London Review of Books. As Fodor notes, apart from standard Cartesian mind-body dualism, the main going answers to the questions posed in the paragraph above are either that consciousness is an illusion or that consciousness is an emergent feature of neural processes. Neither of these answers are adequate. So, Strawson comes up with another response. The premises of the argument are eminently reasonable, but the conclusion is to say the least rather trippy, to use a technical philosophical term. Here's Strawson's argument, as portrayed by Fodor:
There are three philosophical principles to which Strawson’s allegiance is unshakeable. The first is that the existence of consciousness (specifically, of conscious experience) is undeniable; that we are conscious is precisely what we know best. (To be sure, we can’t prove that we are conscious; but that is hardly surprising since there is no more secure premise from which such a proof could proceed.) Strawson’s second principle is a kind of monism: everything that there is is the same sort of stuff as such familiar things as tables, chairs and the bodies of animals. This, however, leaves a lot of options open since Strawson thinks that nothing much is known about that kind of stuff ‘as it is in itself’; at best science tells us only about its relational properties. What is foreclosed by Strawson’s monism is primarily the sort of ‘substance dualism’ that is frequently (but, he thinks, wrongly) attributed to Descartes...

...Strawson holds that there isn’t anything about matter in virtue of which conscious experience could arise from it; or that if there is, we have literally no idea what it could be. In particular, we can’t imagine any way of arranging small bits of unconscious stuff that would result in the consciousness of the larger bits of stuff of which they are the constituents. It’s not like liquids (Strawson’s favourite example of bona fide emergence) where we can see, more or less, how constituent molecules that aren’t liquid might be assembled to make larger things that are. How on earth, Strawson wonders, could anything of that sort explain the emergence of consciousness from matter? If it does, that’s a miracle; and Strawson doesn’t hold with those...

So, then, if everything is made of the same sort of stuff as tables and chairs (as per monism), and if at least some of the things made of that sort of stuff are conscious (there is no doubt that we are), and if there is no way of assembling stuff that isn’t conscious that produces stuff that is (there’s no emergence), it follows that the stuff that tables, chairs and the bodies of animals (and, indeed, everything else) is made of must itself be conscious. Strawson, having wrestled his angel to a draw, stands revealed as a panpsychist: basic things (protons, for example) are loci of conscious experience...

Nor, having swallowed this really enormous camel, does Strawson propose to strain at the gnats. Consider, for example: he thinks (quite rightly) that there are no experiences without subjects of experience; if there’s a pain, it must be somebody or something’s pain; somebody or something must be in it. What, then, could it be that has the experiences that panpsychists attribute to ultimate things? Nothing purely material, surely, since that would just raise the hard problem all over again. So maybe something immaterial? But monism is in force; since the constituents of tables and chairs are made of matter, so too is everything else. So, Strawson is strongly inclined to conclude, the subjects of the experiences that basic things have must be the experiences themselves. Part of the surcharge that we pay for panpsychism (not, after all, itself an immediately plausible ontology) is that we must give up on the commonsense distinction between the experience and the experiencer. At the basic level, headaches have themselves.
Whoa. Basic material things are not only the sources of consciousness, as standard materialism has it, but the loci of consciousness. Everything, since everything is material, is at least potentially the subject of experience.

Now this conclusion (again, from reasonable premises) is so counter-intuitive that it's difficult to accept. How to deal with it? Fodor himself muses that,

Typical scientific explanations appeal to natural laws. Some natural laws are explained by appealing to others, but some aren’t; some of them are basic. So, roughly, the laws about molecules explain the laws about liquidity; and the laws about atoms explain the laws about molecules; and the laws about subatomic bits and pieces explain the laws about atoms . . . and so on down, but not so on down for ever. Eventually, we get to laws about whatever the smallest things are (or, perhaps, to laws about the fundamental structure of space-time); and there we simply stop. Basic laws can’t be explained; that’s what makes them basic. There isn’t a reason why they hold, they just do. Even if basic physical laws are true of everything, they don’t explain everything; in particular, they don’t explain why, of all the basic laws that there might have been, these are the ones there actually are. I don’t say that’s the right way to look at things, but it’s a perfectly respectable and traditional way. At a minimum, it seems that the various sciences form some sort of hierarchy, with physics (or whatever) at the bottom. That’s much as one might expect if the sort of view I’m discussing is at least approximately true.

Maybe, however, there’s something wrong with this view and we’ll finally have to do without it. Maybe the hard problem shows that not all basic laws are laws of physics. Maybe it shows that some of them are laws of emergence. If that’s so, then it’s not true after all that if Y emerges from X there must be something about X in virtue of which Y emerges from it. Rather, in some cases, there wouldn’t be any way of accounting for what emerges from what. Consciousness might emerge from matter because matter is the sort of stuff from which consciousness emerges. Full stop.

It would then have turned out that the hard problem is literally intractable, and that would be pretty shocking. The idea that the basic laws are the laws about the smallest things has been central to the ‘scientific world-view’ ever since there started to be one. On the other hand, as far as I can see, it’s not any sort of a priori truth. I suppose one can imagine a world where all the big things are made out of small things, and there are laws about the small things and there are laws about the big things, but some laws of the second kind don’t derive from any laws of the first kind. In that world, it might be a basic law that when you put the right sorts of neurons together in the right sorts of way, you get a subject of consciousness. There would be no explaining why you get a subject of consciousness when you put those neurons together that way; you just do and there’s the end of it. Perhaps Strawson would say that in such a world, emergence would be a miracle; but if it would, why isn’t every basic law a miracle by definition? I have my pride. I would prefer that the hard problem should turn out to be unsolvable if the alternative is that we’re all too dumb to solve it.

Perhaps we can discover via work in artificial intelligence that when we jiggle a few bits of material things here and there - hardware and software - that something like human consciousness emerges from material stuff. Perhaps we could figure out the "laws" behind this jiggling, and perhaps we could even discover that these laws look very different from ones we're accustomed to in physics and chemistry. But we're then still faced with the basic laws of material stuff and why these laws should be this way rather than that. Further, they would simply explain the jiggling, not consciousness or experience itself. Perhaps, then the study of consciousness would be closer to ethics rather than physics in that certainty really applies to very little in ethics of anything other than a trivial nature.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

Instinctive dislike of an undecided state of mind, exaggerated into a vague dread of doubt, makes men cling spasmodically to the views they already take.

- Charles Peirce

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Urban Panic

An interesting meditation by Bryan Finoki at Subtopia, here.
...Berardi describes the state of urban territory as striated by new dimensions of panic where the mental and physical environment of the city overlap in an over-saturation of signs “that create a sort of continuous excitation," he writes, "a permanent electrocution, which leads the individual mind as well as the collective mind to a state of collapse.”


The Padilla Trial

Firedoglake is sending a reporter to cover Jose Padilla's trial in Florida. The trial will be worth following as a battle between a fantasy derived from political rhetoric and the banal reality of thuggery.

I've spent a lot of time discussing torture on this blog (on Padilla here; here and here, and elsewhere throughout). The journal version of my volume on torture is now out and the book version will appear this summer....

Padilla is a bad man who is also, now, a product of torture, an objectification of torture. In other words, as I've argued about torture, he is whatever the torturers wish him to be. This is of the very essence of torturing for "information." Now, we will see this human product displayed in a courtroom where, even more so than in typical court cases, the entire case will be played out as a struggle between competing notions of reality where the tortured object becomes simply a fulcrum, an instrument, on which political reality turns.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Resignation Day

I smell a resignation or two in the humid air of DC....

UPDATE (11:26pm):

Apparently, that was the odor of machination.
"Mr. Wolfowitz will not resign under this cloud and he will rather put this matter to a full (board) vote than to capitulate on his integrity," his lawyer Robert Bennett told Reuters.
UPDATE (5/17, 7:43pm):

No, sorry it was the redolence of bullshit. From the WaPo: agreeing to leave, Wolfowitz extracted a significant measure of exoneration -- his key demand in the negotiations. Sources said the board will soon issue a statement ascribing to the bank some of the blame for the ethics controversy while acknowledging that Wolfowitz believes he acted ethically.

"He assured us that he acted ethically and in good faith in what he believed were the best interests of the institution," the statement will read, according to a person familiar with the draft wording. "We accept that."

In other words, he's resigning because he has done nothing wrong.

Torture Candidates

Is this actually something that gets Republicans elected? "Let's torture more"?

Debating the treatment of foreign detainees at Tuesday night's debate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he thought the US should "double" the number of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

In the same exchange, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani noted again his service in New York following the Sept. 11 attacks and said he would support interrogators using a wide range of means to elicit confessions from suspected terrorists. Moderator Chris Wallace asked if Giuliani would support the use of waterboarding -- a controversial interrogation tactic some say is torture because it makes detainees believe they are drowning.

"Whatever they can think of," Giuliani said.

UPDATE (5/17, 7:30pm):

More do you like it? How do you like it?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

All Hail the Internets

Now and then, in the rush of information, new software, new communications gadgets, and the gelatinous goop of mostly stupid ideas, one is reminded that the internet also has its lovely moments. Today on the internet I found this photo of my father (in the foreground), taken in Manila in 1962. No one in my family had ever seen it before.

Brave New War

OK, I just received my copy of fellow blogger John Robb's (of Global Guerillas) new book, Brave New War. It's already looking good a few pages in. More later of a book review nature.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Voter Fraud / US Attorneys Scandal

Josh Marshall has been doing a lot of the spadework on this. But Marty Lederman provides us with a helpful ABCs of the scandal. The central point:
Karl Rove and others went further: They decided to use the levers of federal governmental power -- the prosecution power, in particular -- to go after nonexistent voter fraud, and thereby to further suppress voter turn-out in closely contested elections, all in order to enhance Republican electoral prospects. (Simultaneously, other sorts of decisions at DOJ (e.g., pursuant to the Voting Rights Act) were also substantially influenced by partisan electoral considerations.)

The Bomb Wins Again

Photo from a 1957 test conducted to see what an a-bomb would do to an airship. See the full piece here at Airminded [totally ripped by me from Kuipercliff, an excellent new-ish blog worth following].

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day

SteveG has the goods (let's hope mom has a sense of humor):
Yo mama's so short she models for trophies.

Yo mama's so ugly that when she tried to enter an ugly contest, they told her "no professionals."

Yo mama so skinny she has to wear a belt with spandex.

Yo mama's so old that when she went to school, there was no history class.

Yo mama's so dumb it took her six hours to put a bag of M&Ms in alphabetical order.

The Ft. Dix Hicks

Global Guerillas:
The organic emergence of terrorist groups, whose only connection to al Qaeda is through the media, shouldn't come as a surprise. We will see this again and again. One reason is that in open source warfare, the barriers to entry are nearly zero. Anyone can participate. All you need to do in order to join, is to act. Of course, the only good thing (for us) about this dynamic, is that many of these terrorist groups will be merely collections of amateur hackers (in the sloppy sense). Their plans will be stale, foolish, and easy to intercept. The Ft. Dix six are an example of this.
Anyone can participate.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Eurovision 2007 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's that time again, peeps. I haven't kept up this year, but here's the official site to follow along with Sunday's final round from Helsinki.

Let's listen in on Moldova's excitillating entry, Natalia Barbu, who will sing everyone's favorite Balkan song, "Fight":

"I will play the violin, we will dance, we will wave flags - I hope it will help everybody to remember our performance."

Flags!? I sure will remember, Natalia.


Marija of Serbia takes home the gold.


Given that much of global warming is anthropogenic, and that we may view the products and waste of industrial activity as extensions of human technology, could we view the new raft of species appearing as a consequence of global warming as "artificial" species? Humans have sometimes been referred to as a virus on planet Earth, but could we view global warming as massive genetic engineering?
Already this year researchers have announced the discovery of a bunch of new species: 6 types of bats, 15 soft corals, thousands of mollusks and 20 sharks and rays, to name a few. If a report issued in 2006 by the Census of Marine Life—conducted by more than 2,000 scientists in 80 countries—is any indicator, we will see a bumper crop of new animals in the years ahead, too. These discoveries, from the Hortle's whipray to the Bali catshark, are partly the fruits of new technology like DNA bar coding, which allows scientists to use genetic differences to tell one species from another. But that isn't the only reason: Evolution actually speeds up in the tropics, research has found, and global warming is making it happen that much faster...

The advantage in this evolutionary race goes to warm-weather animals, who are taking territory and precious food sources from their cool-weather cousins. "Species that typically would be restricted to the tropics or subtropics are increasingly found north of where they were," says evolutionary biologist Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University, author of The Evolution Explosion. Swordfish traditionally seen in the Gulf of Mexico and Mediterranean have been spotted off the coast of Norway; shallow-water squid that normally call California waters home have been found as far north as Alaska. As these and other species commandeer space and resources, they bring with them their arsenal of DNA, so that their descendants will be even better biologically suited for warmer conditions.
From The Smithsonian (via Abbas at 3 Quarks Daily). Photo by Antonio Baeza.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007

"Barber de Chiva" Drives a lot of Different Vehicles

For a while now, Border Patrol agents at the Checkpoint on US 35 just north of Laredo have been making it clear that they have read my October, 2005 post, "Criminalizing the Political Lie". Yesterday evening, as I drove through -- presently in a 1988 Chevy Diesel truck that is louder than God and which I am test-driving for a neighbor who has recently rebuilt its engine -- an agent (I usually look at the name badge, but it was late, and I was tired) told me he liked my "blog site," ironically smiling at me as he said, "you're Barber de Chiva," right? I told him it wasn't my blog, but that I was happy he had read my post. A few months ago, a different agent had referenced the same post on Phronesisaical. Pleased that the blog was finding readership outside of the eastern fringes of western Europe, I slept peacefully.

I don't really know how it took them nearly two years to find the post, whose point they seem without exception to have missed (I don't really blame them for this, I guess). Maybe the dogs aren't so good at Google.

But read the comments from last night (by following the links to the original post, above), and you'll get a really solid feel for what passes for any kind of national security discussion down here. Among the training BP Agents receive (and it isn't a light regimen) is, of course, preparation for dealing with folks who don't like to be stopped every night driving home from work to have their various cars -- silver, red, what-have-you -- sniffed by dogs. Raise any questions about it, and you get the standard court-case spiel (once at home, I head straight for the law library in our guest room) and the barely-concealed aggression you see in this guy's comments. The "I-know-what-you-drive-and-where-you-live" stuff is only slightly mitigated, in his comments, by the "you hurt our feelings by calling us stupid" stuff.

Let me make something clear, agents and other readers, I don't have anything against any specific US Border Patrol agents. I have a problem with the fact that raising objections to USBP policy and procedure results in veiled threats and/or punitive searches. I have a problem with the unquestioned assumptions guiding the implementation of checkpoints like these. I want, obviously, to be able to express dissent without fear -- the agent claims familiarity with the constitution, but he seems to be missing key points.

For the record: I am sorry if my comments in 2005 caused hurt feelings. I wasn't really making an overt argument, then, about the Border Patrol, but leaving agents like this one with the impression that I think he's a "knuckle-dragger" obviously doesn't lead to productive dialogue, either; I regret that.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


I really should be prepping tonight's final seminar of the semester. But the weather is lovely here in DC and there's a wide open summer coming on. Plus, there are other interesting things to read if one must be a slave to the computer on a day like today.

Jim at Politics, Theory, and Photography discusses the "worst killings in US history" assumption that made the rounds regarding the VA Tech shootings. If one includes labor massacres from American history, the assumption is clearly wrong.

Julia Buxton, an expert on Venezuela currently on a visiting professorship here in DC, writes about mistaken assumptions regarding the "Bolivarian Revolution." Julia argues that the reality of the chavista project gets little fair play in the US and UK media. As I've said many times before, I'm all for criticizing Chavez if it is warranted, but uninformed criticism simply serves ideological purposes. The problem is that the Venezuela situation runs even deeper. There are basically two realities and little common ground for communication between them. The exchange of comments on Julia's article provide a little example of this rift.

Scott Horton at Harper's (via Mark at Norwegianity) discusses the growing tension with Turkey over Iraq's instability and the US-Kurd alliance. The tension has been clear for years, but Horton notes that it could soon come to a violent head. You think Iraq is a disaster? Wait until Turkey and the US are waging war through Kurdish proxies. Remember, Turkey is seeking entrance into the European Union as well. One would like to think that everyone is reasonable enough not to start World War 3, but we've had more than our share of unreasonableness over the past six years such that it is worth taking the tensions with Turkey very seriously.

Finally, for the sickos as well as people like me with a purely scholarly interest, WFMU's blog posts mp3s from "Tortura: The Sounds Of Pain And Pleasure."


Falling people from Denis Darzacq (via 3QD).

Cheap Lives

“I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people,” Colonel Nicholson said, recounting to reporters the words he had used in the meetings. In a videoconference to reporters at the Pentagon, he added, “We made official apologies on the part of the U.S. government” and paid $2,000 for each death.
That's pretty cheap for an Afghan citizen. But you know, you can get even better rates on hunting exotic animals in Texas, though you might want to stay away from the Scimitar Horned Oryx, which will run you 500+ bucks more than an Afghan civilian (though there are "other species available upon request" - don't even ask about the "sheep slam"). One Iranian Red Sheep will cost you a rather steep $4000. You can take down two Afghan civilians (and experience the emotion of shame) for that!

Note, also: "Prices are kill fees only and do not include the guide fee, or lodging fees. There may also be charges for food or beverage, open bar, cook, maid & hostess if any of these things are desired. Each ranch will vary on the pricing for these things if they offer them.
All animals and prices are subject to availability!"

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Ping pong, ping pong, ping pong, ping pong, ping pong,... PING!

Barack Obama:
"...'expensive to do' is no longer an excuse for failure to do,"...

"For the sake of our security, our economy, our jobs and our planet, the age of oil must end in our time."

Monday, May 07, 2007

Disorienting Disaster

Kuipercliff comes across two astounding photographs of the results of a 1964 earthquake in Alaska. See the other here.

Trade Protection in the Name of the Common Good

Good point: "If the copying of Western drugs is illegal, so should be the patenting of yoga."

Read the whole thing. Here's the larger issue:
For decades, Indian law allowed its pharmaceutical companies to replicate Western-patented drugs and sell them at a lower price to countries too poor to afford them otherwise. In this way, India supplied half of the drugs used by HIV-positive people in the developing world.

But in March 2005, the Indian Parliament, under pressure to bring the country into compliance with the World Trade Organization's rules on intellectual property, passed a bill declaring it illegal to make generic copies of patented drugs.

This has put life-saving antiretroviral medications out of reach of many of the nearly 6 million Indians who have AIDS. Yet the very international drug companies that so fiercely protect their patents oppose India's attempts to amend World Trade Organization rules to protect its traditional remedies.

Wolfowitz Has a Conflict of Interest

The word has come down from the World Bank board committee: Wolfowitz is found guilty of having a conflict of interest. He should be gone in a matter of a few days now, since he had said he would abide by the findings. One can argue all one wants about this - that his girlfriend or partner or whatever we're allowed to call her was simply reimbursed for having to move her position so as to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. Perhaps. And so perhaps Wolfowitz ends up a tragic figure. Frankly the only response to that is laughter. After everything, this is the result: tragic laughter.


Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sarko vs. Sego

France picks its new president today. Voting started yesterday in territories abroad and for expatriates. Today the mainland goes to the polls. The estimated turnout for the election is around 80-85%. Sarkozy, the candidate on the right leads Royal by nearly ten percentage points in the most recent polls. So, it looks like Sarkozy will be the next French president. If you have kept an eye on this, you have likely done so through the US press. They seem overly slanted towards Sarkozy, given he is touted as the American-style president. But, apart from his own personal likes and dislikes, there's a deeper meaning for France.

SuperFrenchie has reprinted an essay by Mark Weisbrot discussing the first round of the elections. Mark's take - and I think he's spot on - is that the narrative Sarkozy has successfully played out is that France is suffering economically and psychologically. The American media has gleefully played up this narrative. But it is true only if one assumes a number of dubious starting premises, and these premises happen to be taken right out of the American-style globalization-booster playbook. And I think this opens a very enlightening window on the general normative premises of globalization.

Rather than the standard debate about the tension between developing countries needing to restructure their financial, labor, and trade institutions if they want to compete in the global economy versus the damage that entails to traditional ways of life, local values, culturally-ingrained practices, and identity, perhaps the debate should be placed elsewhere. That is, if the evidence shows that globalization is corrosive of what people perceive to be valuable, and if there is good evidence that this corrosion plays out in the empirical terms of running towards a lower common denominator in terms of social goods, then we have to ask again the question of what globalization - economic liberalization, that is - is good for.

That question, and this is the "American style," is not asked. And France, with Sarkozy, will turn in the direction of the blind assumption. This won't be easy in France because there is too much of the population that is aware of the dynamics of labor in the global market, of the sacrifices demanded of citizens in the name of an abstract idealized global market, and of the serious drawbacks of liberalization. It's an ideology. The reason we don't often discuss it in the US is because it is American ideology - we can't even see it. We do things, rather, like blame immigrants for our labor woes. France, of course, is undergoing that phase and this prepares the way for a Sarkozy who can then talk up the French "malaise."

Here's Weisbrot:

The general theme that has propelled Sarkozy into the lead is that the French economy is somehow “stuck” and needs to be reformed to be more like ours. It is also widely believed that France needs to be made more “competitive” in the global economy, since competition is tougher now in a more globalized world.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been the most popular proponent of the idea that French workers must lower their living standards because of the global economy. “All of the forces of globalization [are] eating away at Europe’s welfare states,” he writes . . . “French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.” For Friedman and most of the pundits, this is impossible.

It is important to understand that there is no economic logic to the argument that the citizens of any rich country need to reduce their living standards or government programs because of economic progress in developing countries. Once a developed country has reached a certain level of productivity, there is no economic reason for its residents to take a pay or benefit cut, or work more hours, because other countries are catching up to their level. That productivity, which is based on the country’s collective knowledge, skills, capital stock, and organization of the economy, is still there, and in fact it increases every year. To the extent that international competition is being used by special interests to push down the living standards of French or German or U.S. workers - and it is - it just means that the rules for international commerce are being written by the wrong people. It is a problem of limited democracy and lack of representation for the majority, not a problem that is inherent to economic progress.

Another mistake that is commonly made in this debate is to compare France’s income or GDP per person to the U.S., by which France lags: $30,693 for France versus $43,144 for the U.S. (these are adjusted for purchasing power parity). But this is not a fair comparison, because the French do not work nearly as many hours as we do in the United States. Economists do not say that one person is worse off than another if she has less income simply due to working fewer hours. A better indicator of economic welfare in such a comparison is therefore productivity, which is as high or higher in France as it is in the United States.

Now for some arithmetic regarding France’s notoriously high unemployment rate among young people, which shaped politics there and influenced world opinion during the youth riots in 2005. The standard measure of unemployment puts the unemployed in the numerator, and unemployed plus employed in the denominator (u/u+e). By this measure, French males age 15-24 have an unemployment rate of 20.8 percent, as compared to 11.8 percent for the US. But this difference is mainly because in France, there are proportionately many more young males who are not in the labor force - because more are in school, and because young people in France do not work part time while they are in school, as much as they do in the United States. Those who are not in the labor force are not counted in either the numerator or the denominator of the unemployment rate.

A better comparison then is to look at the number of unemployed divided by the population of those in the age group 15-24. By this measure, the U.S. comes in at 8.3 percent and France at 8.6 percent. Both countries have a serious unemployment problem among youth, and in both countries it is highly concentrated among racial/ethnic minorities. But the problem is not much worse in France than it is in the United States.

Sarkozy proposes making it easier for employers to fire workers, cutting taxes (including inheritance taxes), pushing back against the 35 hour work week, and other measures that will favor upper-income groups and owners of corporations. These measures will certainly redistribute income upward, as we have been doing in the United States over the last 30 years. But once again, there is little or no economic evidence that these measures will increase employment or economic growth....

Friday, May 04, 2007

"We Believe," I Believe, Whatever

Golden State pull off the upset and drubs the Dallas Mavericks to win their NBA playoff series. It's a big big upset. Baron Davis (who Flaco calls "The Beard"), who was basketball genius in the series, is a hero. Everyone carries everyone else out on their shoulders. "We Believe" is the t-shirt slogan. Congratulations are in order.

I don't "believe." Not in the Golden State Warriors. Great for them and their fans, but sports euphoria is fleeting. Being a San Diego Padres baseball fan, I've never had close to the opportunity to believe. They were demolished, humiliated in both of their World Series appearances. My basketball team is San Antonio, but I don't have any particularly thick conviction there. I don't believe in a god(s), and I don't need to believe in a god(s). I don't believe in heroes. I'm certainly not going to heroize political leaders or parties - that leads us down the road to moral destruction, as it has with the current administration, because faith blinds us to critical accountability, which happens to be one of the most basic functions of citizens.

The problem today is that I still believe in the basic goodness - or promise of goodness - of human relationships, and thus the virtue of loyalty to loyalty that the mainly (ironically) forgotten American philosopher Josiah Royce maintained was the basis of human decency.
...a cause is good, not only for me, but for mankind, in so far as it is essentially a loyalty to loyalty, that is, an aid and a furtherance of loyalty in my fellows. It is an evil cause in so far as, despite the loyalty that it arouses in me, it is destructive of loyalty in the world of my fellows. (Royce 1995 [1908], 56)
I'm losing that faith. I've long struggled against the dumbly assumed proposition that human beings are fundamentally competitive because intrinsically self-interested, self-maximizing. That struggle takes place not only at a personal level, but also at the level of how I've thought about philosophy and public policy as an academic. I now think I was wrong. I hate to be a cynic on a Friday when we're supposed to begin forgetting our worries for the next two days, but much of the world is rigged. And much of our intellectualized moral efforts go to telling ourselves that it is not and that we individually usually have good intentions despite the harm caused by rigging. One element of harm falls on those individuals caught up unexpectedly in the rigging. The harm is both immediate - that individual may have invested much time, energy, and effort in hope of an eventual outcome that would be beneficial to all. It turns out that this was wasted time. Perhaps that person didn't have full information in making that investment. Nonetheless, there's often good reason for resentment when one's loyalty is used or betrayed, and resentment is a purely corrosive attitude. But the harm is further exacerbated in that each instance of it serves to create conditions in which, the next time, we will act purely based on self interest. We gradually create a world of self-interested beings who avoid placing themselves in positions that could lead to resentment. That ultimately means using loyalty as a means rather than an end. That seems to be the society we're busy creating. It's not just the mean old industrialists and side-talking politicians. It's increasingly everywhere. The ironic tragedy is that it's ultimately not in our interests.

Being a pragmatist, I see theoretical formulations and practice as inextricably intertwined; normatively, at least when they're worth pursuing, but that worth is going to be judged through both theory/practice. Theory gains its legitimacy through experience, and practice gains its legitimacy through reflection, which then gains its legitimacy through practice since practice is always informed by theory (and vice versa)....

The problem at a philosophical level is not simply when theory speaks to theory itself - that's simply a way of making our theories more sophisticated, though it can teeter at the edge of irrelevance. The problem is when theory believes itself to transcend practice. There are two consequences: 1) that theory ends up simply divorced from practice, raising the question of why we engage in it at all other than as a self-satisfying aesthetic experience. 2) that theory, by believing itself to be transcendent of practice/experience, still somehow maintains that what we need to do is take rarified theory and apply it back to practice/experience. The assumption is that if we can somehow transcend the particulars and uniqueness of experiential contexts, we can then discern the pure outlines of generalizable or even universalizable theory which can then cover all possible practical/experiential situations. God is like this, a priori thought is like this, even most consequentialism - as theory - is like this, teleological thought is like this, academic egos are like this, economists are like this.

Unfortunately, we individually also tend to be like this, although it could be otherwise. But it's more insidious and invidious because we lose sight of the basic virtues and joys of experience. I can't help but think that abusing another's loyalty or even loyalty to loyalty is truly a moral shortcoming, whatever the "rational choice" reasons for the betrayal. Much of actual experience, however, demonstrates that this is increasingly the norm. It's in moments like this that I find my own self saying, "fuck it, I'm done doing things for others. It's now all about me." In essence, I'm then saying that a world I think is built in many ways on false underlying assumptions is, in fact, all there is.

Whatever. Enough rambling....

Speak to me, fellow nihilists.

Friday Dinner Party Conversation Stopper

"In the past, I had difficulty, just as you do, Doctor, in probing and mastering a single subject within a single problem, in penetrating the perilously varied heights and depths of a single aspect of a single train of thought; but those difficulties now seem to me insignificant compared to the state of absolute necessity in which I am now forced to operate in the greatest imaginable number of simultaneous areas in order to make any sense at all. And it is horribly plain that no limits exist any more for those areas, for as far as I am concerned I have truly arrived at the point where limitlessness has become a certainty. I have reached the permanent derangement of advanced age, the more and more philosophical, philosophistic isolation of the mind: the point where everything is continually present in consciousness, where the brain as such no longer exists. . . . The truth is that I more and more believe I am everything, because in reality I am no longer anything, and in consequence I can only feel everything human, everything humanly possible, as shameful."
The narrator said the prince said in Gargoyles, by Thomas Bernhard.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Mayday Tomaters


A musician friend recently set up his MySpace page. I wanted to comment on it, but this required me to be a member of MySpace. So I joined.

I'm accumulating "friends" quite rapidly. I actually do know Richard Rorty, and he's contributing to a book I'm editing. But now Charlotte Gainsbourg and I are also pretty close confidants planning a Mauritius getaway for July. Wilco's coming over for mai tais on Friday. Holly Golightly is making us blueberry pancakes. Lee 'Scratch' Perry and I are starting up a TV repair shop. And I don't have nearly enough time for all the lithe young women who want to get naughty with me.

The question I can't get out of my head is this: what is MySpace for? I can see the advantages of a free public space for musicians and others trying to promote their product. It's an easy way to have internet exposure. I can also understand how it might be fun for teenagers to share photos, music, etc. It's a more sophisticated package of blog, IM, email, and information, a center around which many can immediately participate rather than the usual one on one communication of IM and email or the into-the-void character of blogs. It could probably work well as a public-access site for various causes or sharing broader projects, a bit how "blackboard" works in the university.

But what's the use for someone like me? Can I somehow meet Juliette Binoche? If not, I'm not sure I want to continue with it.

In all seriousness, this seems to me a case of adopting technology for technology's sake. I didn't articulate any clear goal and then choose this medium as a way to achieve the goal. The original goal - to communicate with my musician friend - can be done without going through MySpace.

So, speak to me. And be my friend.

Sea Buckthorn