Monday, July 25, 2011

Crime and punishment

The following is an excerpt from a The Prophet (1923), a book of philosophical poetic essays written by Khalil Gibran. Wikipedia asserts that Gibran is amongst the most-read poets in history, third behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.

But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,

So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.

And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,

So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.

The mass slaughter that occurred in Norway on Friday, including the detonation of a car bomb in a metropolitan area, was perpetrated by a different enemy than most initially suspected. Exposure of the threat within subverts our collective expectations of, and pat psychological responses to, an external threat. It seems that without a xeno on which to assign blame, fear, and reaction (such as Islamofascism) we are left with the distressing realization that evil cannot be hunted down, smoked out, or killed with bullets and bombs.

There is no other - no them. The killer in you is the killer in me. The better we understand that evil does not visit us in the form of a distinct beast to be exterminated, but as a pulse that continuously runs through each of our hearts, the better equipped we will be to redeem the times. God help us.*

- - - - - - -
*I have to asterisk this, not only because it marks the second consecutive post to end in a prayer of sorts, but also because the topic of God in relation to acts of murderous terror is a touchy one. Some would say the holy text of Islam is intrinsically chauvinistic and violent. Some would be well advised to reread the Old Testament with new eyes, then consider what it could mean to be a follower of the biblical God in the most literal, fundamental sense.

In the same passage from The Prophet cited above, the author refers to the "god-self" toward which humanity marches together in procession. This can be read in correlation to the Bible's language about each person bearing the image of God - the perfection of which humanly manifest in Jesus. And we know he wouldn't massacre defenseless children.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The fox and the hedgehog

The following text summarizes a seminar given by Philip Tetlock titled “Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs.”
“What is it about politics that makes people so dumb?”

From his perspective as a pyschology researcher, Philip Tetlock watched political advisors on the left and the right make bizarre rationalizations about their wrong predictions at the time of the rise of Gorbachev in the 1980s and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Liberals were sure that Reagan was a dangerous idiot; conservatives were sure that the USSR was permanent. The whole exercise struck Tetlock as what used to be called an “outcome-irrelevant learning structure.” No feedback, no correction.

Tetlock's summary: “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.” He determined to figure out a way to keep score on expert political forecasts, even though it is a notoriously subjective domain (compared to, say, medical advice), and “there are no control groups in history.”

So Tetlock took advantage of getting tenure to start a long-term research project now 18 years old to examine in detail the outcomes of expert political forecasts about international affairs. He studied the aggregate accuracy of 284 experts making 28,000 forecasts, looking for pattern in their comparative success rates. Most of the findings were negative — conservatives did no better or worse than liberals; optimists did no better or worse than pessimists. Only one pattern emerged consistently.
“How you think matters more than what you think.” 
It’s a matter of judgement style, first expressed by the ancient Greek warrior poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.” The idea was later expanded by essayist Isaiah Berlin. In Tetlock’s interpretation, Hedgehogs have one grand theory (Marxist, Libertarian, whatever) which they are happy to extend into many domains, relishing its parsimony, and expressing their views with great confidence. Foxes, on the other hand are skeptical about grand theories, diffident in their forecasts, and ready to adjust their ideas based on actual events.
Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with a cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

And to improve the quality of your own predictions, keep brutally honest score. Enjoy being wrong, admitting to it and learning from it, as much as you enjoy being right.

~ by Stewart Brand
I came across the link by way of a climate-change related post on The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog. This entry pertained to the nature of "expert consensus" vis-à-vis democracy constituted by "the ignorant many." The argument proffered by our NYT blogger: laypeople, per their non-expert status, have no basis to refute the conclusions of experts (climate scientists in this case, and their view that human activities are warming the planet).

The logic supporting this argument was anemic, relying heavily on the premises of trustworthiness in expert consensus and ineptitude or irrational bias of laypeople. I won't debate the broad veracity of the latter premise, but the former - that expert opinions are reliable - is empirically specious. Any number of historical examples, e.g. as recently as the 1970s climate scientists were predicting an ice-age, weightily refutes this.

Real peril occurs, I believe, on the political level. Regardless of if, when or why experts are incorrect, power-hungry idealogues will always be willing to exploit fear for their own ends. On this, one commentator responding to the NYT article wrote:
Since the beginning of time, high priests and other "experts" have predicted apocalypse for their societies - and increased their standing and power in society by purporting to provide a cure. These predictions of apocalypse all have one thing in common: they are always wrong.
So when I see Al Gore on television advocating a rush to large-scale political action to combat the eminent demise of our planet due to human-generated climate change, I am compelled to roll my eyes. Monolithic thinking dominates the American political landscape (the childish absurdity of the current debt-ceiling debate* punctuates this), and the vision of a free society comprised of and legitimately governed by well-informed citizens is fading. Perhaps my roll-of-the-eyes is better seen as a heavenward plea on behalf of the foxes.

- - - - - - -
*Incidentally, I recently read an article that quoted market master billionaire investor Warren Buffett's quick-fix plan for the budget deficit:
I could end the deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says that any time there's a deficit of more than three percent of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election. Now you've got the incentives in the right place, right?

It's capable of being done. And they're trying to use the incentive now that we're going to blow your brains out, America, in terms of your debt-worthiness over time. That's being used as a threat. A more effective threat would be just to say, "If you guys can't get it done, we'll get some other guys to get it done."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Greed is bad

Once, in a momentarily Randian mindset, I quipped that selfishness was the core of morality. This synthesis came from considering The Golden Rule and The Prisoner's Dilemma. While the golden rule appeals to an ethical imperative (e.g. Hammurabi's Code or the Sermon on the Mount), the prisoner's dilemma is more of a logical allegory (i.e. game theory/math). The result of each person turning on the other is net-negative; everyone loses in sum. Only if each bears some personal price is mutual benefit (net-gain) possible.

What does this have to do with Gordon Gekko? Simply, that he was wrong. Michael Douglas's character in the 1987 film Wall Street employed viciously small-minded mathematics in asserting the virtue of greed. It is not ethically viable for people to act according to the mantra of unconditional selfishness, nor is it socially pragmatic to isolate the interest of the individual from the interests of others. The following are a few user-generated web comments that address this issue:
A widely accepted convention of psychology is that the sociopath is one who is unable to integrate emotionally with others. Humans seem to need ethics to be sane. Ethics not only tells us when it's safe to cross the street, but when others' priorities overrule our own immediate needs and even direct our own emotions toward others' needs. What [better] example is there than empathy? We can feel with all things, from birds to foreigners. Indeed, Hammurabi parlayed respect for others into a codified system which encouraged commerce and vastly increased not only wealth, but the spread of good ideas. Concepts like Justice, Liberty and Rights, intangible though they appear, are more effective in securing our prosperity and viability as social groups than any amount of enforced order.

So, yes, Ayn Rand, we are free to act individually to maximize our individual happiness and prosperity, but our basic nature requires that we take all other aspects of our surroundings into account if we are to preserve sanity. The neocons' paradigm of "creating our own reality" is illustrative of the fallacy inherent to wishful thinking. And on any given day, more than ninety-nine percent of seven billion human beings lives and works side-by-side with others in peace because if for no other reason, it's more efficient. Neither can children be raised nor crops be grown amid conflict. ~ Martin W.

[Part of a response to a philosophy post on the New York Times website.]

The illness that the western world faces isn't liberalism, or capitalism for that matter; it's the distortion of these 'isms' based on the delusional hubris that man has in regard to himself. When people value themselves over their community, society begins to deteriorate. ~ Cliff E.

[From a discussion of individualism on a friend's blog.]

A Republican [sic] is, at root, a person who has concluded that economic selfishness is the heart of morality, ensuring that the worthy get their reward and the unworthy their punishment. If you'd like to advance from political arithmetic to political algebra, substitute "powerful" for "worthy" to derive this: "A Republican is, at root, a person who has concluded that government works best when it serves the economically powerful, even at the expense of the economically disadvantaged they grow wealthy by exploiting."

This health care issue is not ethical rocket science, folks, it's pure power politics. Executives with top-notch insurance policies, insurance companies, overpaid hospital executives and physicians who as specialists often earn in excess of $500,000 per year for 20 hours of work per week don't want national health care. It simply has nothing to offer them that appeals to their powerfully developed sense of selfishness and entitlement. ~ Douglas B.

[Response to an old Washington Post article about health care. This comment is overtly partisan, but I feel it effectively exposes a core ideology of what the first commentator briefly referred to as neoconservatism (if not "Republican" - I take issue with obsessing over the two-party system; corruption is corruption, it abounds everywhere). A planet scorched by global implementation of an ideology that consecrates unregulated rapacity is not a place where I want to live. It might suit Newt Gingrich and his million-dollar Tiffany's expense account, but it ain't for me.]

When we betray each other we betray ourselves. Rational self-interest is good. Greed is bad.

I shall close by invoking the Code of Costanza: WE'RE LIVING IN A SOCIETY HERE, PEOPLE!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Egg salad

Two hard boiled eggs[1], diced
One small ripe tomato, seeds/juice removed, diced
One small jalepeno pepper, diced (remove seeds for less spicy)
Fresh cilantro, chopped
Two strips crispy bacon[2], chopped
Mayonnaise, 1-2 tbsp
Dijon mustard, 1 tsp
Chile powder, to taste

Combine all in bowl. Serve on soft bread.
[1] Hard-Boiled Eggs
Boil water (enough to cover the eggs by an inch). Gently place eggs in water with spoon. Reduce to low, simmer for ten minutes. Remove eggs, serve immediately or chill in cold water.
[2] Microwaved Bacon
Place bacon between two double-layers of paper towels on a microwaveable plate. Zap for about three minutes. Bacon should be light and crumbly.