Friday, January 19, 2007

Random the Fifth.

I just want to have a link to this on Brian Leiter's blog floating around. He comments rather extensively on the nature of persuasion (which, appropriately, I don't find persuasive!), before moving to what I really approve of: the claims that "civility" and a "moderate" tone, while appropriate for academic settings among one's peers, are not appropriate everywhere. Some questions are easy, and people who don't see the answers deserve a sharp slap.

Very interesting set of ideas here about whether philosophical problems are intractable; and, if so, whether they indicate the limits of our understanding. I tend to disagree with the definition of when a problem has been solved, and I also disagree with the (implicit) claim that "being solved" is a dichotomous variable -- that is, something is either solved, or not solved. To my way of thinking, problems can be more or less solved. But, interesting, nonetheless.

Just for fun: The Battle of Helm's Deep in candy.

And (I guess I'm the last person ever to hear about this?), the Fellowship of the Ring, re-told using Peeps.

Also, a list of lame student excuses. These are university students. My favourite: "I'm not interested in the subject of this seminar, and therefore unlikely to answer an essay or exam question on it. I didn't really see the point in bothering to prepare for it."

From the fun to the truly strange: see here and here for the story of a distinguished historian who was arrested by police in Atlanta during a recent American Historical Association meeting -- for jaywalking. No matter what he was doing, since when are people arrested for jaywalking? Cross Atlanta off your travel plans....

I've blogged about copyright before here. Turns out that the situation in Canada may be tending more towards that of the US. According to the CBC, our esteemed government is thinking of passing some industry-friendly legislation that will further limit what you can and can't do with the stuff you buy. My ultimate view, quoting my earlier post:
The point I'm making, ultimately, is that copyright was never supposed to be a license to print money indefinitely. It was supposed to give authors a chance to recoup their costs, and make a little profit, from their work. The balance needs to swing back towards the benefit of society at large, to have these creative works freely available, and away from the benefit of large corporations, to have these creative works controlled in order to make as much money as possible.

According to the Independent, it's happening in the UK now, too. The lobby group that represents the music industry in the UK wants to sue ISPs who "allow" users to trade pirated music. (Seriously, guys, if you want people to buy your product, maybe you shouldn't be suing them?)

Y'know, one tends to think that right-wing lunacy is generally confined to certain parts of the US. Certainly you never think of Washington state as being a hotbed of anti-scientific, irrational nutjobs. But then, there's this:
This week in Federal Way schools, it got a lot more inconvenient to show one of the top-grossing documentaries in U.S. history, the global-warming alert "An Inconvenient Truth."

After a parent who supports the teaching of creationism and opposes sex education complained about the film, the Federal Way School Board on Tuesday placed what it labeled a moratorium on showing the film. The movie consists largely of a computer presentation by former Vice President Al Gore recounting scientists' findings.

And, the next paragraph:
"Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He's not a schoolteacher," said Frosty Hardison, a parent of seven who also said that he believes the Earth is 14,000 years old. "The information that's being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is. ... The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD."
So, the argument is supposed to be:
(1) Only teachers should decide what goes in schools.
(2) Al Gore is not a teacher, so should not be in schools. Even if teachers have decided his film is worth including.
(3) Frosty Hardison (this is a name??) is not a teacher, but can decide that teachers should not show a global warming documentary, nor deny a ridiculous 2000-year-old fairytale.

Too fun.

Further on, of course, we get knee-jerk evolution denialism, "show both sides" bullshit, paranoia about "anti-Americanism", etc, etc. I swear, I don't know how the two reporters who filed this thing kept their heads from exploding.

Why, exactly, does the US Government need to know about everyone's banking and credit records? And when will Americans finally get sick enough of the "well, it's for national security" line to actually stop this?

According to the Globe and Mail, in Manitoba, a woman and her son are filing a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against a town by-law which imposes a curfew on teenagers. Good for them. Imposing a collective punishment on people who haven't done anything, simply because they're in the "wrong" identifiable group is absurd.

Apparently, a far-right group has just formed in the European Parliament via a coalition of various interests. See here and here. I'm not sure that this portends anything in particular. It seems to me that this group is still sufficiently fringe-y that it can't do much more than embarrass itself by announcing its odious ideas to a larger crowd. According to Wikipedia, they only control 20 seats out of 785. By way of comparison, the Socialists have almost 11 times that number. The tone of the article in the Independent (the second link) thus seems a tish breathless to me, but my barometer may be askew due to prolonged exposure to American right-wing radicals.

This is sort of interesting, but a bit speculative. Basically, a new hominid skull has been discovered in Romania, which seems to have traits of both us (homo sapiens) and Neanderthals. The received wisdom up until this point had been, on balance of probabilities, we plus a warming climate probably exterminated the Neanderthals. Now, it may be that enough stuck around to bear viable offspring with us. Of course, as the article suggests, it could also be that either early humans were more physically diverse than we had thought, or this was just a particularly odd-looking homo sapiens.

This is a little disturbing. AJ in DC at AMERICAblog summarizes a few Arabic articles on what the Middle East really thinks about the US presence. I know that Dubya doesn't actually read anything, but is it really possible that no one in his administration has the brains to pick up a freaking newspaper?

Oh, God. The EU wants to ban violent video games. What is it with this myopia that's afflicing politicians across the world these days? Is it just me, or did it not used to be this bad? Look, violence is a problem in any society. Humans are, at some level, killer apes: we have violent impulses. Some of us aren't so good at controlling them. Looking to restrict violent entertainments gets the causal story completely backwards. The impulse comes first, then consuming violent entertainment. For most of us, that catharsis is sufficient: mowing down desperadoes in GUN (my current outlet) satisfies the violent urges such that the rational mind can fully regain control. And the EU wants to take the outlet away? Do they just not understand people, or are they so focussed on courting the votes of idiots that they don't care?

My sometime-sparring partner at Notes argues here -- well, suggests, really -- that
the root of the education problem is not intelligence. It has to do with overwhelming distraction, poor teachers, poor funding (yes, smaller class sizes do help significantly), and poor nutrition. The solutions are parental involvement (or something equivalent), merit-based teacher pay, smaller class sizes, and better nutrition. Saying that the children are to blame is not only wrong but counter-productive. I've never taken an IQ test, but I know that I'm no genius. My mother is a teacher (focusing on early childhood development) and my father used to debate issues with me at the dinner table.

I think intelligence should be in there somewhere, but he's not far wrong. However, he falls into a trap when he claims that poor teaching can be solved by merit-based pay. That may help, as long as it's done correctly. That is, pay is increased to reward good teachers, it is not taken away from bad teachers; and the standards of achievement are fairly clear and objective (and not based on student evaluations!). But part of the problem is the labour pool. In order to go into teaching, you have to love it, 'cause you're never going to get rich doing it. Furthermore, since the schools are public, they tend to turn into political punching-bags, with teachers taking most of the shots. It's a relatively thankless job. Now, there are many thankless jobs out there, but they usually have some kind of increased compensation package in recognition of that fact. An example is tenure at universities. Universities can't really afford to increase salaries, but they can offer the possibility of unbeatable job security. That's not much, maybe, but it's something: at least there's a recognition that, if you want good people in your institution, you have to bait the hook (so to speak). Unless funding is increased to give teachers a reasonable salary, consonant with the value of the job they do, you're immediately going to start at a disadvantage. Those who need money to be motivated will look elsewhere for career prospects.

Interesting piece here on how religious certitude, and not religion per se, is the real danger (which thus excuses Western Christianity and not Islam). I'm not so sure about that, really. Ignoring the questions about whether these anecdotal observations should really be elevated to the level of data, it seems that there's something special about religious certitude. That is, it's not the case that religion is okay, but religious certitude is bad; it's that certitude is okay, but religious certitude is bad. I don't think, for example, you'll find many logicians who disagree that p -> p is necessarily true. But they aren't going to condemn you or kill you if you disagree with it (they'll probably just give you funny looks and go to the other end of the bar). What is it about religion that makes believers so vicious against non-believers?

This CTV News piece argues, entirely one-sidedly, that generous public pension schemes are bad because (1) private sector workers don't have 'em and (2) public sector schemes are "subsidized" by the private sector. Both claims are made by the leader of one of the most notorious astroturf organizations in Canadian politics, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. Firstly, if the organization really represents businesses, and their workers are getting the short end of the stick, why don't they just give 'em better pension plans and stop trying to drag other people down into the gutter as well? Second, and more importantly, this "the private sector supports the public sector" thing is bullshit. The public sector schemes are set up such that if there is a shortfall between benefits and payments, then the employer must make up the difference. The employer, in this case, is the government. However, that's a conditional. If the antecedent is false, then the truth-value of the consequent doesn't matter. Or, in non-logical terms, if the payments meet or exceed the benefits paid, then no extra money goes into the system. So, if deductions from public-sector workers are sufficient to cover the projected payments, as they should be if the pensions are well-managed, there is no "supporting" going on here. It's pure guff, a smokescreen to defer attention away from the first point, i.e., that private-sector employers in Canada are screwing over their workers.

Over here, the National Union of Public and General Employees rips the shit out of the CFIB. Fun stuff!

The CBC reports that the US wants Canada to step up refining oil sands, with all sorts of side-stepping of environmental regulations. The money quote:
Paul Michael Weaby, a Washington insider and an expert on the geo-strategic aspect of the oil industry, said Bush is counting on Canada to help wean the United States off Middle Eastern oil — a goal now defined as a national security objective.

"He wanted to have a reduction of 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015 from the Middle East. Although he did not mention Canada, that is in fact where the replacement supply will come from."

So, Dubya didn't really want the US to use less oil, just, y'know, oil that hadn't been touched by them Ay-rabs. And, as an added special super-bonus, Canada gets toxins dumped into its environment. (Extracting oil from oil sands is a notoriously messy business.) This sounds to me like the same sort of reasoning that thought drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a good idea. After all, as long as the degradation is happening somewhere where most Americans won't see it, it's not really happening -- right?

I basically agree with this opinion piece in the New York Times. It's about the payday loan industry, and argues that the responsibility isn't really with the lenders: they're exploiting a market niche. The problem is with the system that puts people in such a position that payday loans become a necessary option. That seems about right to me. While certainly the payday lenders aren't saints, they're not devils, either. They're just trying to make a buck by selling a needed service. The real culprits are the ones who inculcate the need.

According to the Star, the Ontario version of our national medicare program is forcing a man who underwent a life-saving operation in the UK to pay for his own treatment. Now, I'm sort of sympathetic to the guy. He needed treatment, he got it, and it worked, so if the government were nice guys, they'd just pay the bill. However, looking at the rules, it seems he put himself on the hook for the cost: he was told the treatment he wanted to undergo was considered experimental, he was told that OHIP doesn't fund experimental treatments, and he was told by his own doctors that there was nothing they could do using non-experimental treatments. In essence, then, he was taking a gamble: either the treatment would work, and he'd be paying a big bill, or it wouldn't, and he'd die anyway. So, he took the gamble, and it paid off: he's alive. But, I don't see how he can pretend he didn't know he'd have to pay or that it somehow isn't fair. It's perfectly fair for the government, with limited healthcare resources at its disposal, to say that some treatments are so far outside the mainstream of medicine that they aren't funded. It's not nice, but it's fair.

This misses the point. Recently, a couple of major businesses lost a lot of debit and credit card info. Their security was apparently so shit even they don't know what could have been taken, exactly. The advice in the article is ludicrous: "use cash" and "protect yourself". Why? The issue isn't that consumers weren't protecting themselves; the issue is that these companies were holding data they had no need to hold on to. Hell, the TJX hack took data going back to 2003. Why the bloody hell does TJX need credit card info that's 4 years old?

Caveat emptor only goes so far; it's about time these companies started taking at least some responsibility for putting people at risk.

Just wow. According to this, prisoners of the "war on terror" can now be tried and executed based on hearsay and without anything even approximately an adequate opportunity to defend themselves. Seriously, when do we get to say the American government is fascist? 'Cause I'm having a real hard time seeing it as anything else.

I'd be a hypocrite if I only objected to creeping fascism by the right. According to this, Venezuela's Huge Chavez is trying to get (and succeeding in getting) the power to pass laws by decree. I don't recall him being elected "king", y'know. Look, he's trying to justify this by saying he's going to be doing good. And that would be fine, if Venezuela wasn't a democracy. Which it is. Which means he is supposed to have to convince people, one issue at a time, that his ideas are right. I'm no fan of democracy, but that's how it works. To try to shut down debate and rule by his word, and his word alone, is unquestionably a step towards fascistic government.

Let me end on a high note. According to this article, viewers of The Daily Show are, on average, more educated than viewers of The O'Reilly Factor. I make no judgement as to which is cause and which is effect.

Next week, I promise three things: a post about tuition fees (which was supposed to be this week, but never got written); a post about philosophical methodology (I know, only I care; but I still want to write it); and a post about theory and reality, particularly in economics.

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