Archive: Current Affairs

The Emirate of El Paso and the Austin Free State

Our New Neighbor to the South!
A petition at whitehouse.gov urging that Texas should secede from the United States has gathered over 100,000 signatures. Following the iron logic of secession, El Paso and Austin have filed petitions to secede from Texas should it secede from the US, and no doubt certain neighborhoods of those cities will file petitions to secede from the secession from the secession.
Texans should really think twice about this. The United States has a tendency to turn the governments of small- to medium-sized oil-rich countries into unstable dictatorships, and then, when it tires of its new playthings, it bombs them. Texas, or rather Texans, would, of course, save a significant amount of money if they no longer paid Federal income tax. But even $389 million doesn’t go very far when one stealth bomber costs a billion.

LinkNovember 16, 2012

Veterans Day Poppy

(In remembrance of, among others, Captain Beefheart.)
It may well be that the conception of well-marked generations got its impetus from the world wars, now usually called One and Two. The first, once simply The Great War, was the war of my grandparents; the second, that of my parents. That distinction was clear, easy to remember, soundly based in events.


LinkNovember 11, 2012

Good enough is good enough: on the future of teaching

US Stamp: Mark Hopkins, 1940.
Source: Wikimedia.
There is or was in economics a so-called law known as Gresham’s: bad money drives out good. Another law, of broader application, would have it that good enough dominates best.
The web, and indeed Wikipedia—to which I just happily referred—, illustrates this point. Copying is easy, compiling is easy, finding new information is not so easy, even if that means simply reading journal articles and adding a bit to the existing common store. I have Fuch’s dystrophy, a hereditary disease of the cornea. Naturally I’d like to know all I can about it. I search online, diligently, repeatedly. What I find is the same information (some of it perhaps incorrect) repeated over and over again, often verbatim, from Wikipedia to the Mayo Clinic to NIH. As soon as one tries to investigate specific questions, e.g. about the risk of surgery, one discovers that the web has no answers. I would say that it is broad but shallow; yet even that conveys the wrong impression, since the “breadth” consists largely in repetition of a small core of fact and not obviously untrue speculation.
The information one gleans, with grains of salt for more dubious sources, is for many purposes good enough. Were you a journalist or a student needing two sentences on Fuch’s, you’d have them, quickly and without effort. But it is not much better than good enough. I think that that is a general tendency: the apparent wealth of the (publicly accessible) web belies a widespread poverty.
Good enough drives out best—and even better.
Apply this now to university teaching.


LinkSeptember 9, 2012

Pundit makes stuff up, is refuted

Stanley Fish has recently asserted that “the conclusions reached in philosophical disquisitions do not travel. They do not travel into contexts that are not explicitly philosophical […], and they do not even make their way into the non-philosophical lives of those who hold them”. This is at best a gross overgeneralization; it can be refuted by five minutes’ research online.*
No doubt lots of people will step up to defend the relevance of philosophical conclusions. I want to consider a different issue. Once upon a time when a poobah like Fish issued pronouncements like this, it would have taken time to gather the evidence to refute him. Now it takes almost no time or expense. It seems that by and large the poobahs have yet to catch on, perhaps because for poobahs research is optional. When they pontificate on the day’s events, they mostly rely on their general knowledge. This is owing no doubt to deadline pressures; but it is also characteristic of the role. A well-furnished mind has been, since the days of Cicero at least, a prerequisite of the orator; but even the most well-furnished have lacunæ and lapses, and one suspects that some of our poobahs’ furnishings are sparse.
When I lecture I sometimes find myself veering into topics I haven’t prepared and don’t know much about. I too have to fall back on my general knowledge. I used to be able to count on knowing more than my students on most of the subjects I was likely to veer into. But now they have computers and iPads. If I don’t get a date or name right they can catch it almost immediately. They sometimes do, and sometimes they tell me. I’ve learned two things: one is not to fake it, the other is to take advantage of those computers and iPads—have them do some fact-checking for me. It’s instructive for both of us.
The issue I want to raise is: what becomes of “general knowledge”, or rather the social value of having lots of it, now that anyone with a phone or tablet can simulate the possession of a well-furnished mind? Is the orator’s storehouse obsolete? And if poobah discourse, like the extemporaneous public oratory of Chautauqua days, depends for its effect partly on the impressive marshalling of general knowledge, will it now gradually fade away?
*The issue Fish raises is real enough, and has a long history: for one case, see Miles Burnyeat, “Can the Sceptic Live his Scepticism?”, in Richard Rorty et al (eds.), Philosophy in History (1980) and the subsequent literature.

LinkAugust 3, 2011

Wise fool

Current Affairs ·· More from July 2009
Bill Kristol, son of Irving, plays the contrarian in reacting to Sarah Palin’s resignation. In a burst of controlled enthusiasm, he writes:
All in all, it’s going to be a high-wire act. The odds are against her pulling it off. But I wouldn’t bet against it.
I think we can see why Mr. Kristol has been wrong about so many things. Here he wears his irrationality on his sleeve.
Now I’m not sure that rational choice theory captures the essence of rationality. But I am quite sure that if I estimate the odds of rolling snake eyes at 35 to 1 and then bet even money I’m going to be short of cash before too long.
But just to show that rationality, of whatever cast, does a poor job at predicting behavior, Mr. Kristol has in fact done quite well in the last eight years. Being wrong has paid off. In an irrational culture, it pays to be irrational. Not about everything, of course; what works is well-timed, well-placed stupidity. To be stupid in Kristol’s way takes a lot of smarts.
I forgot—or maybe I never remembered—that Mr. Kristol was Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. Talk about falling upward! Fortunately Steve Schmidt hasn’t forgotten, and he was kind enough to remind Mr. Kristol recently. Unfortunately some say that Schmidt has a “congenital aversion to the truth”—he was lying before he could talk, the little rascal.

LinkJuly 4, 2009

We read stuff

Des mots, toujours des mots
langue au chat
Like English, French has its word-hounds, its mavens, its amateurs vraiment amants. At Le Monde, which is roughly the New York Times of France, two copy-editors divert themselves with Langue sauce piquante. Martine Rousseau & Olivier Houdart comment on matters typo-, ortho-, lexico-, and sometimes autobiographical. One sees in the comments that questions of language boil the blood no less reliably in French as in English.
Confining themselves to the lexicographical, Le Mot du jour (rss) and Le Garde-mots (rss) will augment your vocabulary in daily or semiweekly doses. If there were a French SAT, Le Mot du jour would help you pass it with items like vocifération nitescence (also in Le Garde-mots), and pugnace.
Alain Horvilleur, the author, has published an almanac of words from Le Garde-mots (Jacques André, 2009, 978-2-7570-0088-5).
The specimens at Le Garde-mots are more exotic: panspermie, calotype, gaudepisse (with five synonyms). Learn words like this and they won’t laugh at you next time you hang out at the Luxembourg. Not to your face, anyway.
As long as I’m dealing in words, I may as well mention Wordie, a “social lexicon” where you can create word lists, comment on words, and find images associated with them (this function is iffy).
You’re a reader. At this very moment. (But maybe not now.) Habitual readers tend to like to read about reading and readers. If so, you’ll like Lali. Lali deals mostly in representations of readers reading—paintings, for the most part, but also photographs and sculptures. The text is in French, the images are of no language. Series include: “Anecdotes du libraire” and “À livres ouverts”.

LinkJuly 4, 2009

Odium libertatis

[See Update.] I’m not sure why anyone would expect Liberty University (the late Jerry Falwell’s Collegio Romano) to be even-handed in its treatment of Democrats and Republicans. However much the two parties may resemble one another in their allegiance to corporate interests, on certain matters dear to the heart of the fundamentalist Christians who run the University, Democratic positions are anathema and Republican positions are not.
Since late last year, Democrats on campus have had a club. This month the University withdrew its sponsorship, which means that the club gets no money and cannot use the name or logo of Liberty U in its communications.
An email from Liberty’s VP of student affairs, Mark Hine, to the College Democrats announces that the University has just finished a review of its policy on campus organizations. It then cites what seems to be a section of the Honor Code:
No student club or organization shall be approved, recognized or permitted to meet on campus, advertise, distribute or post materials, or use University facilities if the statements, positions, doctrines, policies, constitutions, bylaws, platforms, activities or events of such club or organization, its parent, affiliate, chapter or similarly named group (even if the similarly named group is not the actual parent, affiliate or chapter) are inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University, the Liberty Way, the Honor Code, or the policies and procedures promulgated by the University.
Hine applies the rule to the case at hand. Because the positions of the Democratic party are “inconsistent or in conflict with the distinctly Christian mission of the University” or with the “Liberty Way”,
We are removing the club from the Liberty website and you will need to cease using Liberty University’s name, including any logo, seal or mark of Liberty University. They are not to be used in any of your publications, electronic or internet, including but not limited to, any website, Facebook, Twitter or any other such publication.
It’s worth noting that though the University’s rule effectively calls for a ban on meetings in University facilites, its action consisted only in denying to the club the use of the University’s name and logo. Nevertheless the implication is that the club, since it meets the conditions of the rule, could have been, and indeed should have been, banned altogether. The tone of the letter is that of a cease-and-desist letter, intended to intimidate.
Once the decision became a target of criticism, Jerry Falwell, Jr. issued a response in which, after complaining about media coverage, he denies that the “Democrat club” was banned:
The students who formed the Democrat club last October are good students. They are pro-life and believe in traditional marriage [in fact those positions are written into the club’s constitution]. They can continue to meet on campus. The only thing that has changed came about as part of a university-wide review of all student organizations for official recognition status. Official recognition carries with it the benefit of using the university name and funds. While this group will not be an officially recognized club, it may still meet on campus.
That’s true but a bit disingenuous. The club may meet, perhaps, but only on the sufferance of the administration: they would be tolerated, like prostitutes in a red-light district. At a later meeting with members of the club, the University offered the club the option of regaining recognition by becoming an affiliate of Democrats for Life of America, which opposes abortion; doing so would bring them into compliance with the rule. As of a few days ago, they were still mulling it over.
The College Republicans think that the Democrats’ club (which began shortly before the 2008 election) provides a welcome opportunity for debate.
Meanwhile, on the 26th, University administrators met again with members of the club. They wanted an apology for what they regarded as false claims made by the club’s president, Brian Diaz, and others to the media, mostly concerning Hine’s email.
The club is going to apologize. My sense is that Diaz and the others, who, as far as I can tell, are against abortion and gay marriage, found themselves in an exposed position—Terry McAuliffe and other Democratic leaders in the state had begun to cite the ban—and needed to back down. For its part the University, represented by Hine and Falwell himself, has done its best to persuade them.
And the moral is…
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has written a letter to the IRS urging that Liberty University’s tax-exempt status be reviewed (they’ve done so before). Liberty University has announced plans to file suit against Americans United. On what basis, I’m not sure.
Not much. Commenters have argued that the University has violated principles of free speech and have raised First Amendment issues. But the University has no obligation to respect principles of free speech, and doesn’t claim to. (People tend to invoke notions of the university as a site of free inquiry, but that is at best a recent and somewhat parochial way of conceiving the institution. Liberty University makes no pretense of being that sort of university; like, say, Oxford University until the 1870s, it promotes free inquiry but only within the faith.) Moreover if TaxProf is right, Liberty’s tax-exempt status is not jeopardized by its action.
The one live issue, mentioned by Ed Brayton, is that the University demands for Christian groups elsewhere the recognition it refuses to the Campus Democrats. Liberty University, or rather an outfit called Liberty Counsel that now operates under the aegis of its law school, has argued—and won—a case in which a campus religious group, Gator Christian Life, was denied official recognition on the grounds that it violated a policy against discrimination on the basis of religious preference.
I don’t think Brayton has much of an argument. The parallel would have been this: suppose Lib U had a clause in its rules governing clubs to the effect that clubs could not discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, and proceeded to deny recognition to the Democratic club on the grounds that they did so discriminate. The Democrats could quite reasonably answer that it is in the nature of political clubs to require of their members that they subscribe to the principles of the club, and thus to discriminate between those who do and those who don’t. The issue raised by Liberty Counsel on behalf of Gator Christian Life isn’t one of free speech, it’s that some anti-discrimination principles are incompatible with some sorts of club. Liberty Counsel argued, successfully, that in the case of Gator Christian Life, the University’s blanket principle of non-discrimination must admit an exception.
Now there may be sorts of club whose raison d’être is so at odds with the principles of a university, or with moral principles generally, that any hint of endorsement would involve the university either in glaring inconsistency (e.g. a club whose purpose was to intimidate professors in the classroom) or moral wrong (a whites-only club). Liberty University takes the Democratic club to have been of this sort, insofar as its recognition by the University would be taken to be an endorsement somehow of the principles of the national Democratic party, principles that the University finds grossly at odds with its “Christian mission” (Falwell and co. tend to say that the pro-choice position is not Christian, but that’s descriptively false and normatively tendentious).
There is, nevertheless, an element of arbitrariness in the University’s action. Not because they have treated the Democratic club differently from the Republican club, but because the Democratic club has explicitly included in its constitution the positions that the University regards as required by its Christian mission. To return to Hines’s letter:
Even though this club may not support the more radical planks of the democratic party, the democratic party is still the parent organization of the club on campus. The Democratic Party Platform is contrary to the mission of LU and to Christian doctrine (supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the “LGBT” agenda, Hate Crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc). The candidates this club supports uphold the Platform and implement it. The candidates supported are directly contrary to the mission of LU. By using LU or Liberty University and Democrat in the name, the two are associated and the goals of both run in opposite directions.
The passage is not entirely coherent, but the gist is clear. The very name “Liberty University College Democrats” forges a link between the University and the Party, a link which is reinforced by the club’s use of the University’s logo, colors, and so forth. The taint of that link is so great that it cannot be mitigated by any disclaimer the College Democrats might offer.
Forget Liberty University and its peculiar mission for a moment. Try to imagine cases where their position would be plausible. No university would want to appear to endorse genocide: a KKK chapter, even if it disavowed the aims of the national organization, could reasonably be denied support because the association of the university with white supremacism is odious enough to overwhelm any mitigation a disavowal could provide.
Liberty University’s view, then, is that association with the national Democratic party, or more precisely with an organization espousing the positions it finds odious, tinctures it with so great a taint that even at second hand no association can be tolerated.
That is the issue. People seem to want a more sensible basis on which to argue. There isn’t one, not here.
Update: The university has agreed to allow the Campus Democrats to be an “unofficial” club. They can use the University’s name and logo, but they must make it clear that they are not endorsed by the University. The College Republicans will be subject to the same condition. See Steve Benen at Washington Monthly, CNN, and
“We decided to go ahead and implement (the policy) as of today,” Falwell said Monday. “The (College) Republicans have been removed from official status and been moved to the new unofficial status that we just created.” […]
“We just decided, with our religious mission, it’s going to be a nightmare to try to figure out which candidates are in-line with our school’s mission and which ones aren’t. And we feel obligated to take the same approach with the Republican club as we do with the Democrat club.”

LinkMay 30, 2009

We read stuff

Current Affairs ·· More from May 2009
That Iraq thing is just not working out. Obama wants his own war. The situation in Pakistan is a mortal threat to our security. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, we win yet more hearts and minds, thirty at a time. The future looks bright with our new general.
They torture, we interrogate.
“CIA Torture Program Architect Was Unqualified”. Somehow this doesn’t surprise me. Everybody was either incompetent or corrupt.
Not everybody was a fool when it came to deregulating the banks.
The pension fund scandal in New York ought to make David Broder happy: it’s a bipartisan effort.
Banks fail stress tests, win lots more money.
We’re having trouble selling bonds.
For a planet in peril, what could be better than a tepid compromise?
Say goodbye to the Carteret Islands.
Goths galore at Disneyland.
Mother’s a bit tipsy.
Morgenrot” by Haushka.
Neither death nor taxes
High-speed rail from Vancouver to San Diego!
Will we still need books? Egghead says yes.
Fox’s audience is aging. This would be funnier if I was younger.
What to learn if you want to become a physicist, and what to read.
Calculus book funds fancy house, concert hall.

LinkMay 25, 2009

We read stuff

Current Affairs ·· More from May 2009
Don’t worry: earnings are better than expected. Nothing but blue skies ahead.
Plus ça change
Obama’s new guy in Afghanistan set up a torture camp in Iraq. He denied access to the Red Cross. He was in charge of Iraq’s version of the Phoenix program, the purpose of which was the covert killing of people regarded as “insurgents”. He was part of the coverup of Pat Tillman’s death.
The opium trade in Afganistan is flourishing again. For some reason, Karzai’s brother wants to keep this good news secret.
You get the feeling that other than blowing things up and torturing people, the US Army hasn’t had much to do lately. But they are good at blowing things up.
Of course it doesn’t help that the people in charge don’t have a plan. (“Firing the field commander” is not a plan. It is, however, one of the Stages of Failed Foreign Interventions. In Pakistan, we are still on one of the early steps, roughly the Diem stage, supporting—or coercing—the government in its attempts to eradicate “militants”.)
Even more change
Obama’s new head of the DoJ Environment and Natural Resources Division is a lawyer for GE.
The chairman of the NY Fed, who has now resigned, had an interest in Goldman Sachs. It paid off: the 37,300 shares he bought in December have increased in value by $1.7 million.
Some see a problem. But I thought that abusing offshore tax havens was of the very essence of free trade.
Not corrupt
Joanna Lumley goes to bat for the Gurkhas.
The NYT goes to Toronto. Strange how every town looks like every other town in articles like this.

LinkMay 18, 2009


  • Churchill said “We don’t torture”. It was a big lie then too. Warning: the details are nasty.
  • Jesus was tortured, so God must like torture, so it’s OK. For us to torture them, I mean. The bad guys, I mean.
  • For the “not-me” file. Condi says: “I didn’t authorize torture, I just passed on the orders of those who did”. Maybe she really doesn’t understand that this doesn’t help.
  • Nice idea: the US should exhibit contrition for its crimes.
New makeup
  • On the bright side, I think this may help to drive the word “rebranding” out of polite discourse.
  • Smarts and local knowledge win again over “superior firepower”. Plus: hearts and minds revisited. (This is one of the seven stages of failed foreign intervention. Next stage: our honor requires us to kill more people before we leave.)
  • Let not the flu of swine enter thy body, saith the Lord. But with the Mexican thou mayst consort.
  • Key phrases: “Ponzified risk management” … “exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity”.
  • Pig earth revisited (Missouri is no. 6 in hog production).
Banks and other robbers
  • Chrysler’s fate is in the hands of hedge funds. This is like having an undertaker in charge of your health.
  • Congress and Geithner are wholly owned subsidiaries of the banks.
  • In Sweden, on the other hand, the government owned the banks. But of course they’re socialists. The country must be run by women (see the last item below).
It’s not a recession. The economy’s just taking a little nap
Feelings all the way down
  • Fish feel pain. So do crabs. Another step on the path to panpsychism.
Treats from the Cato Institute