Dried Roses

With a whimper

It all started off so well…
Who could have imagined that it would end like this?
A podium was set up in the middle of a dirty street. Five small balloons and some tinsel decorated a seating area. The American ambassador and the top commander of U.S. troops didn’t show up. Neither did Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

LinkJanuary 2, 2009 in Current Affairs


cactus, a contributor to the economics blog Angry Bear, objects to the use of the word ‘proportionate’ in discussions of the recent bombings in Gaza (11:18am 1 Jan 2009):
First, because very few people would advocate “proportionate responses” in non-military situations. Consider, for instance, Bernie Madoff. As I understand it, the man is in house arrest and many people wonder why he isn’t already in jail. However, putting Madoff in jail would not be proportionate — there is no indication that he imprisoned or otherwise directly interfered with anyone’s freedom of movement.
The reason it is important to imprison someone like Madoff, if he is indeed guilty of the offenses alleged (and admitted) is to prevent these offenses (and worse) from being committed again. Proportionate responses do not have a deterrent effect. We (through the state) could collectively seize all of Madoff’s assets, but that wouldn’t even deter Madoff from trying again, much less anyone else.
On the other hand, if police officers were allowed and encouraged to routinely shoot one out of every two people caught driving faster than the posted speed limit, and the odds of getting caught any time you were speeding rose to one in two, the average speed on the freeways would drop quite a bit. (Note — the issue of what level of response is needed to achieve a deterring effect is a different question than whether that level of response is worth applying to achieve that effect.)
Second, there is the issue of intent. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda clearly would like to kill us (i.e., and here, “us” amounts to “the West”) all. Every one of us. The fact that they only succeeded in killing a small fraction of us doesn’t mean that in combating Al Qaeda, the West only has the right to go after a small fraction of them. Incompetence is not a defense… and incompetents can succeed at their goals if given enough bites at the apple.
Third, a proportionate response often doesn’t exist. If Osama manages to get his hands on a bomb and next time around nukes New York, what is a proportionate response? His entire organization doesn’t have as many people in it as would have been killed in such an attack. Of course, if you include his fellow travelers, supporters (financial, material, and otherwise), and plain old well-wishers, you could easily end up with far more than enough people for a “proportionate response.” But is it proportionate to go after say, citizens of countries that are purportedly allies of ours who happily send money to Osama knowing full well that if he could, he’d nuke New York. Is it proportional to go after people who only provided money or material support without knowing precisely that it would be used to nuke New York? Perhaps not, but not doing so guarantees what you’re trying to avoid would happen again.
Considered as argument, cactus’s three points fall a good ways short of conclusive.
First point
The imprisonment of a con artist is indeed not “proportionate” to the losses incurred by his victims. But that is because is no common measure between years in prison and dollars lost (I think cactus agrees: imprisonment can be proportionate only to imprisonment). On the other hand, a person convicted of fraud is often required to make good the losses of his victims, if he can; that penalty is proportional to those losses.
The first point, therefore, shows that some penalties meted out as punishments are not proportional to the losses incurred by the victims, but only because they are not commensurate with those losses. That does not tell against proportionality in cases where it could be applied.
Proportionality fits best with theories according to which punishment consists in restitution to the victim of what was lost to them in the crime, or in depriving the perpetrator of goods commensurable to those lost by the victim (retribution). Whether the penalty should be proportional (when that makes sense) to the losses incurred by the victims when the penalty is intended to deter the person penalized (or others like him) from committing the same crime again is unclear. There’s no reason why it should even be commensurable; the intention is to change behavior, not make good a loss. This is one reason why retribution and deterrence don’t sit easily together as aims of punishment.


LinkJanuary 2, 2009 in Current Affairs · Ethics

Sound of the week

Tune in, drop out (4″).
alt:Tutti I

LinkJanuary 4, 2009 in Music

On passive and active ideas

In an informative discussion of experimental results on what you might call the mind’s presumption that its inputs are veridical—a presumption with startling effects—Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:
One might naturally think that on being told a proposition, we would first comprehend what the proposition meant, then consider the proposition, and finally accept or reject it. This obvious-seeming model of cognitive process flow dates back to Descartes. But Descartes’s rival, Spinoza, disagreed; Spinoza suggested that we first passively accept a proposition in the course of comprehending it, and only afterward actively disbelieve propositions which are rejected by consideration.
Over the last few centuries, philosophers pretty much went along with Descartes, since his view seemed more, y’know, logical and intuitive.
This is one of those cases where in the interest of bringing out a philosophically worthwhile distinction people tend to exaggerate the differences among philosophers.
Descartes and Spinoza both distinguished the disposition to assent to or act upon an idea as if it were true from the act of assenting to it. Dispositions to assent can be acquired through reasoning, but they can also be acquired in other ways, e.g. through the senses or in school—in short, passively.
Descartes argues (in the first part of the Principles) that we acquire many opinions passively; to become a philosopher is in part to attain suspension of judgment with respect to certain key opinions that most of us take on without reflection, when the mind cannot resist the pull of bodily sensation and emotion. I don’t think the results described by Yudkowsky would have surprised him.
Spinoza holds that merely to think an idea is to affirm the existence of the object of that idea; in that sense, to comprehend an idea involves assenting to its truth. But that is only part of the story. The more adequate one’s understanding is, the less passive it will be; assent will follow only upon reasoning, i.e. upon understanding the causes of whatever it is one is thinking of. The ideal in Spinoza is not all that different from the ideal in Descartes: for both, genuine knowledge consists in having clear and distinct (Descartes) or adequate (Spinoza) ideas and in reasoning correctly with them. Everything else is opinion.
The view ascribed to Descartes distinguishes two processes: comprehension and evaluation. The mind is supposed first to take in an idea, to bring it before the tribunal of judgment, where it is then evaluated for truth or falsity. Spinoza departs from the model: as he refuses to separate the act of bringing to mind from that of judging (Ethics 2pr49 & cor). He denies any role in his psychology to what Descartes calls “suspension of judgment”, and having done so can then argue that to think of a triangle is to affirm its existence. Will and understanding, or rather volitions and ideas, are one and the same.
Nevertheless he needs some sort of distinction between having the idea, say, of Peter as free and affirming that Peter is free, so that the mind can, once it recognizes that all events are necessary, reject the idea of Peter as free (by incorporating Peter into a causal network in which Peter is seen to be determined in his acts). Without this it is hard to understand how somone could regard himself as having had false opinions; but Spinoza clearly believes that one can.
Subsequent philosophers favored the “Cartesian” model, according to which it is one thing to have an idea, another to judge it true or false. I don’t think this was because that view seemed more “logical”. It was because they came to regard ideas, or more generally systems of representation as mere symbols, having no force of their own. The idea of red, considered in itself, has then no particular degree of what Hume called “vivacity”; only particular thoughts involving that idea have vivacity. Spinoza had argued that that was a mistake, that ideas are not mere dead letters, but his was a minority view.
One culmination of that tendency can be found in formal logic, where the system of representation, i.e. the class of well-formed formulas, is usually defined quite separately from the system of evaluation, i.e. the class of valid inferences.
Overcoming Bias citation via Reperiendi.

LinkJanuary 4, 2009 in History of Philosophy

Sunday cat pix

Musa examines a blooming amaryllis. With a special thought for David and Diane B. Happy New Year to both of you!
Lily & Friend
Musa, 4 Jan 2009

LinkJanuary 4, 2009 in Cats


At U.N. headquarters, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli bombardment of U.N. facilities in Gaza “totally unacceptable.” Israel’s shells have fallen around three schools, including the girls school hit Tuesday, and a health center for Palestinian refugees.
Ban added that it was “equally unacceptable” for militants to take actions that endanger Palestinian civilians, referring to the practice of militants making attacks from residential areas.
So if two members of Hamas run into a school full of children after firing on their enemy, it’s OK to lob 120-mm mortar shells into the school. No matter how many children die, it’s OK, because after all Hamas is using civilians as shields. So go ahead, kill as many as you want! It’s equally unacceptable!
The diplomatic term “unacceptable” has no practical effect. Ban Ki-Moon has no means to alter what he doesn’t “accept”. The only consequential thing he could do to prevent future occurrences would be to go to Gaza himself.
Update: Jimmy Carter calls the current war “unnecessary”, on the grounds that an extension of the ceasefire that had begun on 19 June could have been negotiated (“An unnecessary war”, Washington Post 8 Jan 2009). Neve Gordon, chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, agrees:
[W]e just had a rocket about an hour ago not far from our house. My two children have been sleeping in a bomb shelter for the past week. And yet, I think what Israel is doing is outrageous, as opposed to what Meagan said before. We have here a situation where actually Israel did leave the Gaza Strip three years ago, but it maintains sovereignty in any political science sense of the term. We’ve controlled all the borders. We’ve basically had an economic boycott on the Gaza Strip. And the people there have been living in what one should probably call as a prison. And they’ve been reacting with rockets, because probably that’s the only way that they can react.
Source: “Israeli professor under Hamas rocket fire, Neve Gordon, condemns Israeli invasion of Gaza”, Democracy Now 5 Jan 2009.
Claims that Hamas soldiers were firing from the school grounds are now admitted to be false: “UN: Israel admits claims about attacked school baseless”, antiwar.news 7 Jan 2009
Update: Ban Ki-Moon isn’t going to Gaza, but he is going to the Middle East, and will visit, among other places, the West Bank: “UN Chief Ban, en route to Mideast: Hamas, Israel must stop fighting now”, AP (via Ha’aretz) 13 Jan 2009.
Further update: Ban Ki-Moon has visited Gaza; the Guardian has video.

LinkJanuary 6, 2009 in Current Affairs

Sunday cat pix

Not much sun these days, but LG found some.
LG & sun
LG, 9 Jan 2009


LinkJanuary 10, 2009 in Cats

Sunday cat pix

I looked into LG’s soul.
LG top
LG, 13 Jan 2009


LinkJanuary 18, 2009 in Cats

Mistakes were made

I’m afraid Mr. Olbermann didn’t get the memo according to which you are supposed to remember:
Great Soviet Encyclopedia
Source: Wikipedia
Abu Ghraib, warrantless wiretapping, Maher Arar, the US attorney purge, the billions pocketed by Halliburton and other contractors in Iraq? Irrelevant, just like Al Gore. Watch your mail for new sheets to paste into your encyclopedia, just as soon as Karl Rove gets the Bush Institute at SMU up and running.
Even Obama wants to look forward rather than backward, as he said more than once to George Stephanopoulos last Sunday. But that is to play into the hands of those who are already attempting to cleanse the record (see Paul Krugman, “Forgive and forget?”, New York Times 15 Jan 2009, and Jonathan Turley’s interview with Olbermann).

LinkJanuary 18, 2009 in Current Affairs

Sunday cat pix

Musa contemplates frozen water in crystalline form.
Musa at the window
Musa, 25 Jan 2009


LinkJanuary 25, 2009 in Cats