January 27, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:14 PM


Us and them : From newborns to nation states, we trust similarity. But does that mean we must hate difference? (Marek Kohn 10 January 2013, Aeon)

In the summer of 1954, the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma took two groups of 11 boys, aged 11, to a scout campsite in Robbers Cave State Park in southeast Oklahoma. At first, the two groups were unaware of each other's existence. Before long, they had given themselves names -- the 'Rattlers' and the 'Eagles' -- and flags, and begun an informal rivalry.

Then the researchers inaugurated a tournament, with medals and knives as prizes. The Rattlers decided to put flags on the swimming hole and other sites they claimed as theirs. When they planted their flag on the baseball field, the Eagles tore it down and burned it. A series of tit-for-tat cabin raids ensued. At one point, the Eagles filled socks with stones to defend themselves. Having stoked the conflict to the verge of potentially lethal violence, the researchers then induced co-operation by getting the two groups to work together for a common goal.

William Golding's The Lord of the Flies was published a few months later. It has the same demonstrative quality: both exercises leave us with the sinking feeling that they have dramatised something we already knew about human nature, and that their authors knew their conclusions in advance. In structure rather than mood, however, the Robbers Cave experiment has more in common with Chesterton's novel. The researchers and the king both set up groups that then vied with each other for symbols of prestige provided by the manipulating authorities -- the king's banners and the psychologists' medals. And crucially, the contests were over territory and goods as well as prestige. Although the 'free cities' of Chesterton's London ended up fighting over local honour, the author took care to establish a material basis for antagonism in the original conflict over the plan to build a road through Notting Hill. The Rattlers and the Eagles coveted the knives that the experimenters dangled before them, out there in psychology's Wild West. Sumner himself believed that tensions between groups arose from contests over resources -- that they were about something more than group identity itself.

That point of view left the psychologist Henri Tajfel with the 'nagging feeling that it omits an important part of the story'. In the early 1970s, he set out to see just how little it took to create devotion to an in-group and antipathy towards an out-group. Working at the University of Bristol, he gave local teenage boys a meaningless test, estimating numbers of dots shown on a screen. The boys were then assigned at random to two groups, designated arbitrarily as 'underestimators' and 'overestimators'. Asked to give each other cash rewards or penalties, they favoured members of their own group, displaying gratuitous spite towards the other group by declining to give rewards even when it didn't reduce the amount that went to their own.

Setting up 'minimal groups' like these became standard procedure for researchers interested in what makes in-groups tick. The findings leave no room for doubt: people will coalesce into parochial groups at the drop of a hat, no matter how arbitrary, tiny, vague, esoteric or spurious the differences between them. Rewards, prizes or turf wars will bring the biases to light, but they aren't necessary. In-group love and bias against out-groups can arise even if nothing at all is at stake.

Posted by orrinj at 8:01 PM


Present at the Revolution: The enduring legacy of Cato, inspiration to George Washington and many others : a review of Rome's Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato, Mortal Enemy of Caesar, by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni (Barry Strauss, 18 January 2013, City Journal)

Addison's play argued for death in defense of liberty. A decade later, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon's Cato's Letters went even further and offered a general theory: Liberty was a natural right, embodied in limited government, protected by opposition to tyranny, and characterized by freedom of speech and religion and private-property rights. Originally published in a London newspaper in the 1720s, Cato's Letters--actually a series of essays that the authors wrote under a "Cato" pseudonym-- eventually appeared in book form. The essays had enormous influence on the American Founders and on the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Cato as a Whig and revolutionary is quite a stretch from the historical Cato. What about the reality? In Rome's Last Citizen, political speechwriters and journalists Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni offer an excellent introduction. They have done their homework in the classical sources. Their wise and lively book offers two lessons: first, knowing modern politics can yield insight into study of the ancient world; and second, Rome still has lessons to teach us today. The authors' Rome includes such phenomena as "favor-swapping," "personality-driven reform," "a late-night strategy session," "campaign apparatus," and "new rules of engagement." Balancing out these less inspiring features, Rome also offers Cicero's oratory, Caesar's Commentaries, and Plutarch's Lives, among other treasures. Goodman and Soni make particularly good use of Plutarch's Life of Cato the Younger, our main historical source, though one that requires caution--Plutarch wrote moralizing biography, not history.

The authors approach Cato with respect and critical distance. They carefully trace a life that took its bearings from a combination of Stoic philosophy and old-fashioned Roman virtue. Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 BC), the so-called Cato the Younger, came from a prominent family. He followed in the footsteps of his famous great-grandfather, also named Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BC) and sometimes referred to as Cato the Elder, who came to symbolize austerity, aggression, and conservatism.

Ancient Rome was a republic: a mixed government combining popular assemblies, powerful magistrates who operated as virtual kings for their year in office, and an aristocratic senate. The Roman republic indirectly inspired America's constitutional separation of powers. By Cato's day, though, Rome's government was out of joint, bitterly divided between populists and oligarchs. Cato emerged as a leader of the second faction. He championed a tiny senate elite's traditional role of guiding the destiny of the empire and its tens of millions of inhabitants. Yet Cato also defended freedom of speech, constitutional procedure, civic duty and service, honest administration, and the enlightened pursuit of the public interest.

More than anyone else, Cato saw clearly the threat that Julius Caesar posed to the old order. 

... your teacher mishandled Julius Caesar.
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Posted by orrinj at 7:50 PM


Avoca Quack-Off still draws crowds by the busload (ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS, 1/21/13, Lincoln Journal Star)

Thirty-three years ago, two guys sat in an Avoca bar and had an argument something like this:

"My duck's faster than yours!"

"Oh, yeah!"

"Prove it!"

As happens with arguments that start in bars, the men hauled their ducks to a farm pond and raced. Who won isn't important.

What matters is  that race evolved into the Avoca Quack-Off, one of Nebraska's quirkiest -- or quackiest -- winter events.

Last year, more than 1,000 people came to watch and compete in duck races. Avoca, population 240, is about 32 miles east of Lincoln.

"It's just a heckuva lot of fun," said David Seay, who has lived in Avoca since 1990.

Posted by orrinj at 9:38 AM

Posted by orrinj at 9:29 AM


The Living Edmund Burke (Russell Kirk, Imaginative Conservative)

Thomas Paine erringly dedicated The Rights of Man to George Washington; but Washington, rejecting Paine, expressed his admiration of Burke. Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall were governed by Burke's principles. (Marshall, by the way, lifted portions of his Life of Washington from Burke's account of the American War of Independence in The Annual Register.) The Constitution itself reflects the practicality and prudence taught that generation of men by Burke - by contrast with the doctrinaire and ephemeral successive constitutional documents of the French revolutionaries.

Burke is little "dated." For America plays today the role that was Britain's at the end of the eighteenth century: like the English then, we Americans have become, without willing it, the defenders of civilization against the enemies of order and justice and freedom. Ours are imperial duties, requiring imperial intellects for their performance. Burke does not stand outside the American political tradition: rather, he stands in the grander continuity of that civilization in which American life and character are a part. To seek guidance from Burke is no more exotic, for Americans, than to seek humane insights from Shakespeare, or to seek religious wisdom from Saint Paul. In many respects, the great American nation of 1982 is more like the imperial Britain of two centuries past than it resembles the isolated infant federation of the early years of independence. Because Burke addressed himself to matters that transcended nationalities and generations, he endures on either side of the Atlantic. Much political truth, like most of poetic truth, transcends frontiers - and especially when nations share a heritage of long historical experience, humane letters, and political first principles.

Yet in gaining from Burke's insights, we Americans need to take pains not to convert ourselves into "Burkean" ideologues: that is, into political fanatics, mistaking a set of abstract principles for political reality. No man more greatly abhorred ideology, political abstraction, than did the practical statesman Edmund Burke. Be governed by prescription, convention, custom, ancient usage, historical experience, said Burke; remember that change is the means of our preservation; bear it in mind that the superior statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform. The foundation of our civil social order, like that of Burke's Britain, is not an ideology, some "armed doctrine": rather, it is the Christian religion.

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM

Listen to Doc Watson Picking Away at his Banjo : A new release from Smithsonian Folkways highlights the talent of a bluegrass master (Leah Binkovitz, February 2013, Smithsonian magazine)

In 1960, the producer Ralph Rinzler paired the forgotten banjo legend Clarence Ashley with an obscure young guitarist named Arthel Watson. The recordings they made (Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960-1962) introduced "Doc" Watson's bluegrass flatpicking to a national audience. That's just one reason Rinzler, who died in 1994 at age 59, was recently inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. He was also a mandolin and banjo player of note, a tireless folklorist and a promoter, co-founding the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and helping the Smithsonian Institution acquire Folkways Records.

Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962
  1. Old Ruben2:04More Info
  2. A Short Life of Trouble3:22
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Posted by orrinj at 9:17 AM


The vegans have landed : A dominant species is a dominant species. If you really care about animal rights, vegan ethics don't go far enough (Rhys Southan 22 January 2013, aeon)

If our intergalactic superiors landed here, but had no interest in eating us or our fellow animals, the first thing they could do is rob our stores, homes, farms, and warehouses of all our fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and vegan convenience products. Without violating any vegan principles there would be no limit to the amount of food vegan aliens could steal from us -- vegan ethics allows for humans using all the plant matter they want in the world, no matter how many animals starve as a consequence. Aliens could cause the worst famine humanity has ever seen, but it would be entirely compatible with vegan ethics. That's because it would all fall under the rubric of 'good intent'. They wouldn't be killing us deliberately to eat us, but rather because they wanted our food and had the power to take it -- our starvation would be a foreseeable, yet accidental, side effect. We might try to fight the vegan invaders over this mass plunder, but then they could kill us outright for threatening their lives. That's because humans killing animals in self-defence is also no crime in veganism, even if we've wandered onto the animals' own territory.

Since veganism doesn't stop us from wrecking animal habitats to make space for ourselves, vegan aliens could knock down all our buildings to construct new ones that better fit their pan-galactic design aesthetic. They could evict us from our homes, businesses and veganic farms without compensation, and then, to keep us from returning, they could set up fences, noise barriers and other humane deterrents. To them, we would be hungry pests who threaten their vegan food supply, so they might even be justified in trapping us or killing us with poisons if we got too close. Humans would now largely be without food and shelter, but the vegan aliens wouldn't need to lose sleep over it, since none of this contradicts any vegan tenets.

Depending on how much land was required for the vegan alien cities to accommodate all their alien vegan restaurants, alien anarchist bookstores and alien warehouse lofts, the vegan aliens might or might not set aside some land for humans to live on. Because our habitat would be fragmented to suit aliens' desires regardless, it would be difficult or impossible for us to redevelop agriculture of our own, or gather enough food to survive. Any habitat they left for us would never truly be ours anyway, because if the aliens ever wanted to increase their population or just spread out, veganism doesn't stop them from taking more land.

Some vegan aliens might enjoy keeping a few human pets, naming us, cuddling us, and feeding us veggie treats. Even now, pet ownership is a controversial issue in animal rights, but most activists say that it's okay for vegans to keep some animals as dependents since they have been domesticated and, as a result, would suffer in the wild. Vegan aliens could justify keeping humans as pets for similar reasons if they saw that some of us couldn't make it on our own. That might be a pretty fair deal if the aliens were friendly and loving owners, but the downside is that they could spay and neuter us, as even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says vegans should spay and neuter their pets. Of course, the aliens would say this was for our own good, as we tend to overpopulate when left in charge of our own reproduction.

There's a chance that not all aliens would thrive on a plant-based diet. Some of the aliens might suffer from an unfortunate confluence of intolerances, allergies, digestive troubles, and medical conditions, or they could be living in harsh climates without enough plant material to sustain them. There could be any number of alien-centric conditions that made veganism too difficult for some of them. Vegan ethics makes exceptions in cases like this when a vegan diet just cannot work for some individuals, which means some of the aliens would be allowed to eat meat for their health. For example, aliens with Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome who can't produce enough of their own cholesterol might benefit from an external animal source. And aliens with epilepsy might need to be on a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet to control their seizures, but it would be nearly impossible for them to get the right balance of macronutrients without eating animals, especially if they also happened to be allergic to soy, gluten, and nuts.

So which animals would they kill for this purpose? Since the vegan aliens would claim to be anti-speciesist, it would be unjust discrimination for them to value the lives of humans over those of other animals such as deer, squirrels, pigeons, rabbit, or fish. So if the aliens couldn't tolerate soy, wheat, fructose, oxalates, or nuts, or if they lived somewhere without much in the way of vegan foods, they could eat us with a clear conscience.

A vegan alien invasion could then all but destroy humanity while rationalising most of our suffering and death as 'accidental' or 'unfortunate but necessary', just as vegans now rationalise the harms that a plant-based human civilisation would cause nonhuman animals. What the argument from alien invasion ultimately shows, then, is that humans cannot consistently apply the Golden Rule to the rest of the animal kingdom without going a lot further than vegans are asking us to go.

Posted by orrinj at 9:10 AM


Never mind the noise: Quantum entanglement allows channel information rate to exceed Shannon zero-error capacity (Stuart Mason Dambrot, Phys.org)

As developed by Claude Shannon, information theory defines channel capacity as the maximum rate at which information can be sent through the channel. This capacity can be mathematically described using a graph associated with the channel. Specifically, a graph's Shannon zero-error capacity is the maximum rate at which messages can be sent through a noisy channel with zero probability of error. However, the Shannon capacity does not reflect the fact that on atomic scales, nature behaves according to quantum mechanics. Recently, scientists studying asymptotic behavior in entangled sender-receiver quantum systems at Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, The Netherlands have identified families of graphs for which entanglement allows the Shannon capacity to be exceeded.

...and cheaper....

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Posted by orrinj at 8:59 AM


Far from Complete: Great Books Missing in the Kindle Format (ED DRISCOLL, January 26, 2013, PJ Media)

I was a slow convert to the idea of ebooks. My wife bought one of the first Kindles, and I couldn't get past the off-putting appearance of the text on the screen in the Kindle's first iteration. But then I tried the Kindle app for Windows. And the Kindle app for my Android Tablet. And slowly began to fall in love. I could read anywhere. I could free up space on my overflowing and limited physical bookshelves. I could easily quote what I had just read in a blog post. The idea of being able to carry my entire library with me and having it accessible in locations as diverse as the treadmill at the gym or a seat on an airplane became increasingly irresistible.

But not my entire library, alas. There are numerous examples of books that I'd repurchase in a second to read on my Kindle that simply aren't there yet. Nor are they available on Barnes & Noble's Nook e-reader; I've searched.

Off the top of my head, in an ideal world here's what I'd like to see in the Kindle format. Amazon links are included, if you'd like to get started reading any of these titles now in good ol' dead tree format -- which might be a good idea, as I suspect the wait for some of these might be glacial. [...]

■ The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, by Terry Teachout. Neither Pops, Teachout's biography of Louis Armstrong, nor his earlier look at Mencken are available on the Kindle, curious oversights given Teachout's vantage point as the Wall Street Journal's longtime drama critic. To understand the misanthropy, nihilism, and sheer "oikophobia" that drive so many journalists in the 21st century, it's necessary to discover its root cause, and all roadmaps point back to H.L. Mencken. Teachout's 2003 book is an excellent introduction to Mencken's career, and his worldview.

Posted by orrinj at 8:50 AM


A Wealth of Words : The key to increasing upward mobility is expanding vocabulary. (E. D. HIRSCH, JR., Winter 2013, City Journal)

[C]orrelations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research. Of course, vocabulary isn't perfectly correlated with knowledge. People with similar vocabulary sizes may vary significantly in their talent and in the depth of their understanding. Nonetheless, there's no better index to accumulated knowledge and general competence than the size of a person's vocabulary. Simply put: knowing more words makes you smarter. And between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart, and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.

Why should vocabulary size be related to achieved intelligence and real-world competence? Though the intricate details of cognitive abilities are under constant study and refinement, it's possible to give a rough answer. The space where we solve our problems is called "working memory." For everyone, even geniuses, it's a small space that can hold only a few items in suspension for only a few seconds. If one doesn't make the right connections within that space, one has to start over again. Hence, one method for coping and problem solving is to reduce the number of items that one has to make sense of at any moment. The psychologist George A. Miller called that process "chunking." Telephone numbers and Social Security numbers are good examples. The number (212) 374-5278, written in three chunks, is a lot easier to cope with than 2123745278.

Words are fantastically effective chunking devices. Suppose you put a single item into your working memory--say, "Pasteur." So long as you hold in your long-term memory a lot of associations with that name, you don't need to dredge them up and try to cram them into your working memory. The name serves as a brief proxy for whatever aspects will turn out to be needed to cope with your problem. The more readily available such proxies are for you, the better you will be at dealing with various problems. Extend this example to whole spheres of knowledge and experience, and you'll realize that a large vocabulary is a powerful coping device that enhances one's general cognitive ability.

If vocabulary is related to achieved intelligence and to economic success, our schools need to figure out how to encourage vocabulary growth.

Unfortunately, your vocabulary is almost entirely a function of your home life.  One doubts you can do much for kids whose parents don't read.  But we could at least use the hours that we hold them captive to make them read on their own.

Posted by orrinj at 8:45 AM


Why Government Spending Is Not Out of Control (BRUCE BARTLETT, 1/25/13, The Fiscal Times)

[V]irtually all the growth in projected spending comes not from entitlements or giveaways to the poor and lazy, as Republicans would have us believe, but rather from interest on the debt. This is a problem, but not nearly to the extent that it appears.

The reason is that interest on the debt is what economists call a pure transfer. Economically, it is little different from taking money out of your right pocket and putting it into your left pocket. That is because the vast bulk of interest goes to people and institutions who simply use it to buy more Treasury securities.

Back in the days when the federal debt was owned almost entirely by Americans, one could reasonably say that we owed it to ourselves and it was a matter of no economic concern. As Franklin D. Roosevelt put it Our national debt after all is an internal debt owed not only by the Nation but to the Nation. If our children have to pay interest on it they will pay that interest to themselves. A reasonable internal debt will not impoverish our children or put the Nation into bankruptcy.

Of course, we no longer owe the debt all to ourselves; about half of the publicly-held national debt is owned by foreigners, but most of that is held by central banks that will hold it pretty much forever. Nevertheless, there is still a fundamental economic difference between a debt arising from higher government spending on goods and services and one arising from higher interest expense.

When government buys stuff or employs workers, they are not available for use by the private sector. If the economy were growing and the unemployment rate was low, this would be a bad thing. Under current circumstances, however, when GDP is far below its potential and unemployment is high, government spending on goods and services is not displacing private use, but rather putting otherwise idle resources to good use.

My point is that economists have long differentiated between non-interest spending and that for interest, which, as I said, is a pure transfer that has essentially benign economic effects. For this reason, they are mainly concerned about what is called the "primary deficit," which is non-interest spending as compared to revenues. As the chart shows, the primary deficit going forward is actually quite small - just 1.7 percent of GDP in the long run.

Moreover, this estimate is high because it was calculated before the effects of the fiscal cliff deal, which substantially raised revenues and reduced projected deficits relative to the assumptions used in the Treasury report.

If it's important to pretend there's a crisis to get the policy changes we want, it's also important not to swallow our own rhetoric whole.

Posted by orrinj at 8:40 AM


Barack Obama is Not Pleased : The president on his enemies, the media, and the future of football (FRANKLIN FOER AND CHRIS HUGHES, 1/27/13, New Republic)

Barack Obama's pre-presidential manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, has only one extended riff on gun control--not a homily on behalf of the cause or even a meditation on the deep divisions opened by the debate, but a story of crummy luck. While State Senator Barack Obama was vacationing in Hawaii, visiting his grandmother and hoping to "reacquaint myself with Michelle," the Illinois legislature abruptly returned to consider bills making the possession of illegal firearms a felony offense. Joining this special session would have required him to backtrack thousands of miles with a sick 18-month old in tow. So Obama stayed put on the islands, while back in Springfield, the package failed by a slim margin. His campaign manager warned him that a political opponent would likely pillory his absence in an attack ad featuring a beach chair and a Mai Tai.

That Obama didn't include the substantive case for gun control in his treatise was characteristic. A strain of wisdom ruled a generation of Democratic Party politics: You might pay a price for reticence on the issue in a big city like Chicago, but in the rest of the country, it was a noble loser, bait for backlash in electorally crucial Rust Belt states with not even the remotest hope for legislative victory. In 2010, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence judged Obama's efforts on behalf of its issue worthy of an "F."

So when the president learned of the massacre in Newtown, how could he not have felt at least a pang of guilt about the failure of his party and administration to keep gun control on even a low simmer? Indeed, his aides described the massacre as having knocked his tightly held interior life into full view like no other event. "I had never seen him like that as long as I've known him," his speechwriter Jon Favreau later told The New York Times, recalling the day of the killings, when Obama sat gob-smacked behind his desk.

On the day we visited the White House, about a month later, the president had just finished presenting his robust slate of gun control proposals--so robust, in fact, that the next morning's newspaper would declare it almost certainly doomed to failure in Congress. But that was the point. 

Those are two stories about different ways to do nothing while making the Left think you care.  Talk Democrat; govern Republican.  He's their Nixon.

Handful of Senate Democrats could block assault weapons ban (CORINNE LESTCH, 1/26/13,NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

Democrats desperately trying to pass an assault weapons ban in the Senate have come up against an unlikely roadblock -- members of their own party.

At least six of the 55 Democratic senators are wary of the ban or have simply shot it down, which means the proposal would be defeated unless the legislators -- all from rural states -- have a change of heart.

Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia all oppose the ban. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who usually leans left, is another naysayer

Posted by orrinj at 8:32 AM


Frodo versus Robespierre (Joseph Pearce, 1/27/13. Imaginative Conservative)

If a thing is worth doing at all, it's worth doing badly...

This paradoxical witticism of Chesterton was on my mind as I sat down to watch The War of the Vendée, a recent film about the forgotten martyrs of the French Revolution. I was pleased that a film had been made to honour the heroes of the Vendée but I feared that it would be a really bad film. [...]

 Deep down, at the bedrock level of truth, the French Revolution was as evil as anything that the Fellowship of the Ring had to face. Its bloodthirsty secular fundamentalism set the scene for the bloodletting of the next two centuries. In its insatiable war on the Faith, secularism began with the guillotines and the Great Terror and metamorphosed into the Gulag and the gas chamber. Today, of course, it attacks the Faith and the Family and is systematically exterminating the weak and disabled members of society through the plague of abortion.

Make no mistake, Robespierre was one of Satan's greatest servants and the villagers of the Vendée were certainly on the side of the angels. As such, we can be sure that both sides in this epic struggle between good and evil now have their reward. Robespierre would be killed by the same orcs that he had unleashed on the Vendée and his fate after death might be too horrible to contemplate. The heroic villagers of the Vendée, butchered in their thousands by the hordes of revolutionary orcs, are now in the company of the saints, martyrs and angels.

By the time that I had finished watching this wonderful film, I had forgotten about the Chesterton paradox that had been on my mind ninety minutes earlier. Instead, another Chesterton quote came to mind. On his death bed Chesterton had emerged from a sort of reverie and had said: "The issue is now quite clear. It is between light and darkness, and every one must choose his side."

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