Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Amanda Morgan Principle

Drawn from Dickson's "Lost Dorsai":

"In fact, there isn't any such thing as a solution that could be made in time, isn't that right?"

"No, absolutely wrong.  If we could stop the clock at exactly this second and take some months to study the situation, we'd undoubtedly find not one, but several solutions that would abort the attack of the regemints in the time we've got to work with.  What you lack isn't time in which to act, since that's merely something specified for the solution.  What you lack is time in which to discover the solution that will work in the time there is to act."


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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Everything I Needed to Know in Life...

... I learned from cyberpunk fiction:

1) Information once introduced to a database or network is never removed.

2) When people have a world of information at their fingertips, one can hide signal among the noise. If they never look for you, they won't find you.

3) Encrypt everything.

4) Make sure you're sharing only what you mean to share.

5) View all digital connections with distrust.

6) Become comfortable with alternate identities, anonymity, and cash.

7) Communities are distributed.

8) The future is portable.  Geography matters less.

9) Identity is fluid and malleable.

10) Concepts like beauty, history, truth, and morality are community derived, not monolithic or ahistoric.

11) One will have to adapt to changing technology, and adapt changing technology.

12) People must be self-governing.


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The Ongoing Nym Wars.

A decent article, but missing some points, I think.

For one, the ability to publish anonymously is tremendously important for scientists. I know, I know, science is supposed to be an open process, where due credit is claimed and given, where if one believes in one's research, one should be glad to put one's name on it. But there remains to problems: money and ideology.

In science, it is important to go wherever the results lead. One does not publish results that are wrong, nor withhold them because they are unwanted. However, if one is doing work in highly contested fields, like climate change, or environmental chemistry, or drug biochemistry, there is tremendous pressure to come up with the right results: those that the powers that be would like to see. In such cases, the availability of anonymity is crucial. Sometimes, only through anonymity can one publish results that go against the current conceptual grain without fear of reprisal.

But what about accreditation? Surely, one's results don't mean anything unless one can prove one's background, education, degrees, and credibility, right? Astonishingly, no. A well written scientific paper will describe the experimental set up in excrutiating detail. Every step, from experiment construction, insturmentation and apparatus, gathering of data, analysis, and presentation ought to be detailed and explained. At that point, it really shouldn't matter so much if one holds multiple Ivy doctorates or just a lazy day in the back yard. Results are results, and any critique with the experimental or observational set up can happen on that basis.
It is not just scientists who benefit from access to anonymity, either. There are those of us whose professional and personal lives are somewhat distinct. When I am at work, I attempt to behave in a calm, professional manner. I keep my opinions reserved to myself, especially where they may be at odds with those of my superiors, clients, and customers. But, being human, and Irish, and a philosopher by habit, I do have opinions. Sometimes I am driven to express them, but it would be infeasible for me to do so in a forum where they can be traced and attached to my professional persona.

On a regular basis these days, we are cautioned about not posting anything to a social media site that we might be embarrassed about later. And this is of course, true. But judicious use of anonymity allows for a certain amount of discretion to be exercised. Avoiding publication of photos, or unique identifying information allows a certain separation that is invaluable in the modern world.

Curse Google+ then, for their insistence on "real names" for their profiles. As if their machinery and machinations were capable of deciding on what is a real name at what is not. There are those individuals, some bearing a nom de electronique years in the making, that are forgoing participation in avoidance of being "outed".*
There is a certain arrogance in learning a person's name; a forced intimacy. We assumke that knowing a person, knowing their position in life, their state and status is the same as knowing their inner life. Yet the two are not always connected. Readers of Et In Arcadia Ego know much more about me than they might learn from my given name. Really, knowing my official persona is a masquerade of intimacy. Those who stumble upon me here, or at my new social networking account, or on any of the various online fora I frequent would do better to read my words and ponder them than to ask what my "real name" is. Even better, let's engage in a conversation, and we'll know each other better than a number of given names could say.
At a deeper level, pseudonyms are an inherent human need. We adopt various personae to mediate our interactions with the world. We choose, from moment to moment, which persona is to be shared with which others. For many, there are certain aspects of personality, or history, or intellectual life that are not to be shared with all comers. We pick and choose which to conceal and which to reveal, and it is not for any to force an unwelcome intimacy.

Each of us is unfathomable, we contain multitudes. The masks we choose to wear, and the roles we choose to play are how we converse with the world. To attempt to know someone by penetrating their persona is unthinkable, like attempting to know the entire night sky all at once.

*Incidentally, I recommend a revolt. Rather than allowing google+ to delete our profiles, I nominate that all of us unwilling to give up our anonymity adopt the pseudonym "Nicholas Bourbaki".


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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thus Uzzah spoke

Uzzah spoke, saying, "Ask not a philosopher any question, for he shall respond simply, saying ' I don't know. Maybe? It's complicated. What did you mean by that?' "
"To recognize untruth as a condition of life -- that certainly [or certainty?] means resisting accustomed value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that risks this would by that token alone place itself beyond good and evil."

Not just beyond good and evil, my friend Zarathustra. Behind good and evil, as the best love of Aristotle was behind the physics.
If life becomes uncertain and full of doubt, where then do we place science? If even scientific truth is simply a mask for doubt, what then? Science becomes untethered, free to float upon the currents. But the wind that drives it is our invisible friend, philosophy.

"Philosophy makes science its bitch."


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Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Really Bad Idea

For years, we've had various psuedo-reformers making a lot of noise about getting the corruption out of Washington, D.C. A lot of the focus has been on somehow getting into the system with a wire brush and scrubbing all of the money out. Unfortunately, the late Citizens United case has made that difficult, ruling as it did that corporate donors are permitted to give unlimited funds to influence campaigns.

We say we want campaigns to be about issues, not money. We say that political donations are akin to bribery and influence peddling. We try to outlaw quid pro quo arrangements, forbid mixing a candidate's personal and campaign funds. We limit the contributions that can be made to candidates, but allow "issue ads" to be funded, as if there were some sort of difference. It's said that a member of the U.S. house of representatives must raise $10,000 per week just to run for re-election. Money in politics is like water on the sidewalk, it always finds a way in.

Meanwhile, the primary process is gearing up for the 2012 coronation. President Obama is unchallenged on the Democratic side, but right now, there are twelve or twenty G.O.P. candidates each trying t get some sort of edge. As I write this, we're just out of the grand, meaningless Iowa straw poll, but any actual meaningful electoral activities are still months away.

The media, not having much to report on, is indulging itself in polls and statistics. We're told, week by week, day by day, sometimes hour by hour what representative samples of the populace think about the candidates. Pundits try to capture vague metrics for concepts like "support" and "momentum". And one of the metrics they like to track is money: who has raised how much how fast.

It's an important measure of political support. People like what a candidate is saying, so they send money. Big donors want stuff, so they back the candidate who best promises to give it to them. "If you can't drink their booze, take their money, and then vote against them, you don't belong in politics." they say. The money is important: money is speech, we're told. The money pays for ads, and appearances, and hotel rooms and airplanes and everything the candidate needs to get elected. The more money a candidate has raised, the more people like him.

Meanwhile, everyone complains about taxes. No matter what bracket you're in, taxes are too high. Or they're not high enough for somebody else. The government spends more than it takes in, and is drowning in red ink. One of the most divisive issues is the nature of government itself. How big should it be? Can we reduce the size of it by starving off the funding? Everyone seems to agree that deficits are a bad thing, but no one seems to know how to deal with them. Many people want smaller government, as long as their particular sacred cows aren't gored. "Get your government hands off my medicare!" or "If we cut defense and homeland security, terrorists will kill us all!"

So here's a really bad idea. Instead of trying to get money out of politics, let's let it all in. Instead of scrounging in budgets and tax plans for money, let's go to where the money already is. Let's merge the government budget process with the campaign finance process. Let's let candidates solicit unlimited money from anyone they want: people, corporations, unions, foreign nationals, other governments, anybody. But that's it. No taxes, no other revenue. What money a candidate has in the war chest at the end of the election cycle goes into the general fund.

The more a candidate spends on getting elected, the less he'll have available for kickbacks at the end of the cycle. No more contributing money to the guy who will cut your taxes or forge loopholes for you, because it'll be the same thing. Spend your money on the guy who will use it the way you want, not on the guy who will cut you the biggest deal once he's in office. The more popular a candidate is, the more money he'll get to play with to implement his policies. We'll all finally get the government we pay for.

How about it?


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Saturday, August 20, 2011

In the Works

Coming up here at "Et in Arcadia Ego"

More analysis of "Ten Reasons Why Evolution is Wrong"

Six ways that the Patriot movement thinks and sounds like a bunch of Marxists.

and more...

Real Soon Now.


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Rules for Reactionaries

There's been a lot of electrons molested in the conservative and patriot press lately about Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. President Obama has cited the man and his work as one of his inspirations both in his career and on his campaign trail. Conservatives are predictably up in arms about it, as if it were somehow out of bonds to talk about successful strategies for community organization, but accusing liberals collectively of treason is fine.

What amuses me is the swath of tea-baggers, pseudo-libertarians, and Johnny (Tremaine)-come-lately patriots up in arms about it. Where have you guys been? You like to proclaim yourselves the heirs of grass-roots political activism, but you'll completely ignore a reasonable work on the subject. Seriously, do you guys not realize how much like Marxists, Wobblies, and Progressives (the early 20th century kind) the lot of you already sound like to me? Why throw out a book that speaks to the very tactics you claim to be promoting?

Really, is there that much of a difference between Saul Alinsky and Judith McGeary? That much of a difference between Ian Freeman and Jerry Rubin? Is there a meaningful distinction between Ron Paul's Revolution for Liberty, and the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey? Stop reading self-righteous, self-absorbed tracts on libertarian economics and maybe look into the works of the people who have preceded you. Ever wonder, in the midst of all of your self-righteous, unthinking condemnation of communism, why Marxist-Leninism was the single most successful revolutionary ideology of the 20th century, with a message that spread from industrialized Germany to developing Russia to the agrarian economies of East Asia and South America? Stop burning books and try reading them.


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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Evolution and Morality

"I believe in evolution. I don't believe in morality. It's survival of the fittest... if I see something I want, I take it until something bigger than me comes along."

Nice try, sir. Bravo! Very Hobbesian... "the life of a man in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short."

Except that evolution doesn't work like that. More importantly, natural selection doesn't work like that. For one thing, natural selection simply isn't interested in the survival of the individual, except insofar as the survival of the individual helps promote the continuation of the species. This has a couple of important consequences (yes, we'll get to morality in a bit).

Sexual reproduction has long shown to be a strong strategy for the continuation of species. Sexual reproduction induces variation, which allows a species to better fill more niches in the environment, adapt to changes in the environment, or to reinforce and preserve advantageous variations that have already been expressed. Reproduction is a good thing, evolutionarily speaking, and so is sex.

But sex (at least for mammals, reptiles, and avians) requires more than one member of a species to get together. A lone male by himself cannot reproduce, neither can a lone female. They have to find a way to find each other and co-exist for a bit for sex to happen. "So why can't one of them, the male perhaps, just take what he wants?" Good question, seems reasonable. A little of the ol' rape makes the world go 'round. The truth is, though, that outside of some communities of Republicans, most females are capable of fighting back. They can claw, they can bite, they can run, they can hide. And while making the male overcome a few obstacles can be good for the species, there's a limit. If the female becomes too hurt, too tired, or otherwise unable to give birth to offspring (fertilized eggs for reptiles and avians, live offspring for mammals), then there's no continuation of that genetic line.

So it helps if the female wants it, at least a little. Maybe not all the time, maybe not with any particular male, but for most species of reptiles, birds, and mammals have to be able to co-exist with another member of their species long enough to make a love connection. They have to be able to do the nasty without it getting too nasty. So sex isn't all taking; there's some giving going on there as well.

But of course, that's not where morality really comes in. Because natural selection throws our amoral believer in "evolution" for another loop. That new twist is co-operation. Animals of the same species working together for their mutual benefit and the survival of their species.

Crows form murders, wolves form packs, cats form prides. Even herbivores get into the action, with herds and flocks. Apes, bless their anthropomorphic hearts, band together in troops. Humans build clans and tribes. In each case, evolution has provided each group of animals with some rules for getting along. Share food. Don't arbitrarily get in fights with other members of your pack, pride, or troop. Participate in group food gathering or hunting. Share child rearing duties. Establish a co-ordinated strategy for group defense. Maybe establish some vague system for who gets to reproduce with whom.

And it works. Individuals who follow the group's rules get to enjoy the benefits of group membership. Individuals get their needs met, and the group and the species goes on when individuals die. We know these systems work, because we see them work. Our theories of evolution tell us that if co-operation weren't a viable strategy, then any species that tried it would die out. And yet they haven't. Co-operative groups are all over the animal world. Each group has rules that their members follow.

The natural origins of morality.


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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pick Up Lines in the Wikipedia Age

So, I was reading about cheetahs the other day. Apparently, they have a hard time breeding in captivity. You see, when a female cheetah goes into heat, she'll attract one or two willing males. Then she'll take off running. The males will chase her; this chase can last for two or three days, and cover over a hundred miles sometimes. Until finally, one of the males catches her and has his way with her.

That being said...

Start running.


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