Blargh Blog

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The Powerful and Responsive Buzz of BLOGS

The first Presidential debate has hardly finished and already the bloggers are swarming like hordes of lightning -- fact-checking lightning.

For all of you coming by to read what I have to say so that you can decide what you thought of the debate and the candidates, I'm pleased that you chose Blargh Blog to do your thinking for you. If you're reading this for some other reason, well, enjoy.

So what happened? Well, Kerry showed both resolve and resoluteness, although he resorted to fearmongering and took some philosophically dubious positions. Bush took a multifaceted approach to the problems of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, occasionally tending towards pacifist extremes and favoring the realm of the mental over the physical world. And both of them made plenty of false, questionable, or misleading statements, which will soon be torn apart and corrected by the buzzing storm of electron-like bloggers.

I'll go through some of the most heinous and amazing statements, starting from the top.

Kerry started off in the Schwarzenegger role, making a perhaps overly ambitious promise to single-handedly take down a multi-national terrorist organization: "I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are." Kerry did not specify whether he would be using any weapons besides his bare hands.

Bush, implicitly pointing towards the primacy of mental states and the fundamental Kantian evil of deception, argued: "Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming. ... The facts are that he was systematically deceiving the inspectors." Apparently, deceiving others into believing that you have WMDs is worse than actually having WMDs. And, with arms as with love, it is better to have arms and intend to disarm than to not have arms at all. Kerry did not directly question this claim, though he did help to clarify the logic of Bush's reiterated claim about Hussein by pointing out once, in passing, that it was not true that there were WMDs in Iraq.

Kerry tried to scare America over to his side: "The president -- 95 percent of the containers that come into the ports, right here in Florida, are not inspected. Civilians get onto aircraft, and their luggage is X-rayed, but the cargo hold is not X- rayed. Does that make you feel safer in America?" In his closing statements, however, he promised that his fearmongering was only temporary: "I believe America's best days are ahead of us because I believe that the future belongs to freedom, not to fear." Apparently, mongering fear in the present will somehow make it fade away in the future.

Bush would have none of this fearmongering. He took a touchy-feely turn instead, giving a big metaphorical hug to the Federal Bureau of Investigation: "... we've also changed the culture of the FBI ... We're communicating better." Cultural awareness and communication - that's what counts.

Bush staked out a hardline position on the role of our enemy in forming our policies, in response to this Kerry statement: "Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq in order to go out to people and say that America has declared war on Islam." Bush explained: "My opponent just said something amazing. He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq as an excuse to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn't going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn't get to decide. The American people decide."

Later, Bush either backpedaled or took a more nuanced approach (I am not sure which), suggesting that, unlike bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il can help us form our policies, in this amazing indirect way. He justified the Iraq war by saying: "There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was hoping that the world would turn a blind eye." Repeatedly, Bush noted the importance of acting counter to the desires of the North Korean dictator: "The minute we have bilateral talks, the six-party talks will unwind. That's exactly what Kim Jong Il wants." Perhaps, the difference between these claims and Kerry's is that in these cases the policies are based on the enemy leaders' mental states rather than their actions - for the realm of the mental does seem to be central to Bush.

Bush made a couple of strong pacifist points, as the success of Nader in getting on the ballots in some swing states appears to have forced Bush's hand in working to hang on to his supporters. First, he painted a beautiful picture of a world without all of these dangerous weapons: "And we have a duty to our country and to future generations of America to achieve a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan, and to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction." He did not mention whether there would be widespread hand-holding or children singing after all of the world's nukes have been dismantled.

In response to a question on the deaths of soldiers in Iraq, Bush nearly used the great rhetorical trick of beginning and ending your response with the same words. He began: "You know, every life is precious. Every life matters." He was ready to close with: "Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. Everybody matters." In a rhetorically unfortunate move, however, Bush decided to squeeze in some more information on Iraq and Afghanistan in the moments that remained on the clock. But nonetheless, Bush expressed a heartwarming, and, may I say, very spiritual sentiment that every person on this Earth is precious and important, and that unlike those who are trying to kill us, we believe that even our enemies' lives our precious. I am not sure if this indicates a reversal of his support for the death penalty and his desire to kill the terrorists, or if it's another one of those mental states/actions distinctions that Bush seems to implicitly love.

Kerry then put forth a philosophical position that seems to run counter to such luminaries as Plato and Aristotle. "And that's one of the reasons why I believe I can get this job done, because I am determined for those soldiers and for those families, for those kids who put their lives on the line. That is noble. That's the most noble thing that anybody can do. And I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility." Instead of considering the life of the statesman, the life of the philosopher, or perhaps the spiritual life as the most "noble" way of life, he chose this warlike definition of nobility. I would like to see him defend this thesis in a more interactive debate.

Kerry only sunk himself deeper into trouble my making a doubly-false statement - what I would call a "double lie" if I suspected that Kerry had more awareness of the truth. Kerry said "Secretary of State Colin Powell told this president the Pottery Barn rule: If you break it, you fix it." However, the rule that commonly goes by the name of the Pottery Barn rule is "If you break it, you own it." Further, the Pottery Barn does not actually have this rule. And no, Senator Kerry, you cannot get around this fact by claiming that you were only attributing a statement to the Secretary of State. When you say he "told this president the Pottery Barn rule" in front of a national audience you are staking yourself to the claim that this actually is the Pottery Barn rule.

Bush showed his idealistic colors again by describing how to win this war which is actually taking place in the domain of consciousness, not on so-called "physical" or "material" battlefields: "The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people that when we give our word, we will keep our word, that we stand with you, that we believe you want to be free."

Kerry promised to mend his clumsy ways if he becomes President: "But I'll tell you this: As president, I'll never take my eye off that ball."

Kerry kept his strange-sounding philosophical ideas coming: "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong." Although it sounds odd to me, I'll have to leave the question of whether Kerry is staking out a defensible epistemological position to Jon Kvanvig and the rest of the folks at Certain Doubts.

Kerry also appears to believe in redundantly securing loose nuclear material: "You have to put the money into it and the funding and the leadership."

Kerry's statement was in response to Lehrer's straightforward question: "If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?" Bush seems to react to phrases like "single most serious" like pepper responds to soapy water: by slipping away in all directions. "Proliferation," Bush said, "is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer." One of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy. The man's focus is like a laser -- a laser through a pair of slits.

Bush then went onto even shakier ground, suggesting that perhaps the United States is not able to stand up for itself: "Again, I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea. It's precisely what Kim Jong Il wants. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong Il to get rid of his weapons. It's a big mistake to do that. We must have China's leverage on Kim Jong Il, besides ourselves."

Kerry showed either some confusion about who had input on the decision to go to Iraq, or else some clumsy strategy of identifying with the American people that goes well beyond the royal 'We': "Now we have this incredible mess in Iraq -- $200 billion. It's not what the American people thought they were getting when they voted."

Kerry also seemed to be using some sort of technical definition of the verb "leave" when discussing Iraq. Kerry said: "I know that for many of you sitting at home, parents of kids in Iraq, you want to know who's the person who could be a commander in chief who could get your kids home and get the job done and win the peace." But with this talk of getting the kids home, apparently, "I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning." Apparently, leaving after winning is not really leaving at all. I may have to ask a linguist on this one. Neal?

I'll close this review of the debate by illustrating that the "legitimate" media is just as flawed as the "legitimate" political parties, as evidenced by an error of Lehrer's. Kerry said of Bush "I mean, this is the president who said There were weapons of mass destruction, said Mission accomplished, said we could fight the war on the cheap -- none of which were true." Lehrer then put words (well, a word) into Kerry's mouth and asked an incisively confused Bush to respond to them: "LEHRER: Well, but when he used the word truth again... BUSH: Pardon me? LEHRER: ... talking about the truth of the matter. He used the word truth again. Did that raise any hackles with you?"

From the comfort of my own pajamas, I hope that I have done my part in joining in the swarm of bloggers that are stinging this country's Liberal, Conservative, and Media elite into submission with the truth, while simultaneously producing volumes of sweet, gooey honey.


Wednesday, September 29, 2004

John Kerry - harsh on Saddam since 1997

David Adesnik at Oxblog goes back over a Kerry speech on Saddam Hussein from November, 1997, and thinks that Kerry sounds Bush-like. Kerry said:

[Saddam Hussein] cannot be permitted to go unobserved and unimpeded toward his horrific objective of amassing a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. This is not a matter about which there should be any debate whatsoever in the Security Council, or, certainly in this Nation. If he remains obdurate, I believe that the United Nations must take, and should authorize immediately, whatever steps are necessary to force him to relent -- and that the United States should support and participate in those steps.


Saddam Hussein, who unquestionably has demonstrated a kind of perverse personal resiliency, may be looking at the international landscape and concluding that, just perhaps, support may be waning for the United States's determination to keep him on a short leash via multilateral sanctions and weapons inspections.


In my judgment, the Security Council should authorize a strong U.N. military response that will materially damage, if not totally destroy, as much as possible of the suspected infrastructure for developing and manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, as well as key military command and control nodes.


I believe it is important for [the Security Council] to keep prominently in mind the main objective we all should have, which is maintaining an effective, thorough, competent inspection process that will locate and unveil any covert prohibited weapons activity underway in Iraq. If an inspection process acceptable to the United States and the rest of the Security Council can be rapidly reinstituted, it might be possible to vitiate military action.


If Saddam Hussein is permitted to go about his effort to build weapons of mass destruction and to avoid the accountability of the United Nations, we will surely reap a confrontation of greater consequence in the future.

To Adesnik, "The real irony here is that Kerry actually makes the case for attacking Saddam far more eloquently than Bush."

Unfortunately for lovers of irony, Kerry makes the case for a war against Iraq in some sort of alternate world, rather than the world in which Bush started the war in March of 2003. A world where there are weapons of mass destruction, but no weapons inspectors, in Iraq. In other words, a world like the one that existed when Kerry was making his speech in 1997, rather than the world of March '03, when the opposite was true.

So did Kerry then turn from hawk into dove? Well, reread the lines of his 1997 speech. He spoke with bluster in 1997 (like "some sort of Texas cowboy", says Adesnik), but it was all about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. He makes it clear that he's not advocating war for war's sake, and that his call to arms would quiet down if we could get some arms inspectors in Iraq (though Adesnik considers this to be an irremediably Kerry-esque "bit of nuance"). It's all about keeping weapons of mass destructions out of Saddam's hands, by war if necessary, and through the United Nations, if possible. If you keep your eye on the ball and don't let it stray to the birds, the same message comes through loud and clear in his October 2002 speech:
As bad as he is, Saddam Hussein, the dictator, is not the cause of war. Saddam Hussein sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is a different matter.

And he's still referencing the same tune in September of 2004, "Instead, the President rushed to war without letting the weapons inspectors finish their work." For some reason, though, the intervening events of the past two years have caused him to change his emphasis. Instead of focusing his talk on why it is important to keep weapons of mass destruction out of Saddam's hands (and only mentioning that things might not work out well "if we go it alone without reason" as a symptom of his irremediably Kerryish nuance) , he's spending a lot of time talking about why we shouldn't have gone to war in March of 2003, all of the mistakes that Bush made in Iraq, what the current conditions are in Iraq, and what needs to be done to improve the situation in Iraq. I'll leave it to you to decide what to think about why in the world Kerry might have started talking so much about these other things. Does it mean that he's turned into a hopeless dove who wants to kiss the feet of the French and the UN? Or might there be some other explanation?


Working together

Incompetence and ideology often work together in the creation of pieces of pseudo-research that support someone's partisan position while having little basis in reality. How do they do it? Here's one simple way for them to create a powerful one-two punch:

1. Do some sloppy research on a politically-charged topic.
2. If the results match your ideological preconceptions, publicize them. If they don't, try to improve your methodology.

One advantage of this kind of incompetence-ideology teamwork is that you can plausibly claim that the error was an honest mistake and that you did not intentionally skew your conclusions. Since proving counterfactuals is a nasty business, it's difficult for anyone to know what you would have done if the initial results had not matched your ideology.

But we can come up with some promising examples where this sort of joint effort probably took place:

- Late last year, Ross McKitrick and a mining executive published, and AEI publicized, a piece of empirical research that attempted to refute the claim that there has been dramatic climate change in the last few decades. However, their paper was riddled with mistakes, including inputting latitudes in degrees and then using a program that treated those numbers as radians in its calculations.

- The State Department issued a report in April that claimed that terrorist attacks had declined in 2003 and the Administration publicized it as evidence that we were winning the War on Terror. It was later discovered that the report was riddled with mistakes, including a failure to count attacks that ocurred in the last month and a half of 2003.

- Dan Rather and CBS news aired an episode of 60 Minutes that was critical of Bush's Nation Guard service, basing their decision on documents that turned out to be shoddy forgeries.

- Irwin Stelzer argued that the economy is doing well, based on a dramatic increase in Walmart's sales from July 2003 to July 2004. However, he failed to account for the fact that the majority of the increase was due to the fact that Walmart had opened up lots of new stores.


Expanding Torture

Apparently, some people in Congress have decided that what we really need to do is torture more people. Well, not torture them ourselves (because that could lead to some complications, like, say, if some pictures of it were to get out) but send them to other countries to torture them for us. And, they would like to make it as difficult as possible for anyone outside of the executive branch to have any input in these decisions.

Please, write your Representative and let them know that you are opposed to torture and the new torture bill.

(via Obsidian Wings and Crooked Timber I & II)


A message to our readers

In this world of spin and counterspin, this world where people seem to care more about their side looking good and the other side looking bad than about the truth, you are one of the regretfully rare people out there trying to wade through the mass of distortions and flawed thinking to figure out how things really are. Others are all too willing to see the world as they would like it to be, as they are swayed away from the truth by their own biases, preconceptions, self-interest, and ideology, and they are all too unwilling to accept the facts for what they are and to work through a sound argument. But not you. Though you’re not magically immune from these human limitations, by being reasonable and open-minded you’re able to keep their influences to a minimum and to base your positions on clear thought and the evidence at hand.

Now, you don’t claim to be perfect, but when you do make mistakes they are often because you did not have all of the best evidence readily at hand, and you are usually able to recognize, correct, and learn from the (relatively few) errors that you have made in your reasoning and judgment. Most other people, either from their biases or from (shall we say) a lack of dedication to figuring out the truth, often prove unable to come to reasonable conclusions even when they have clear evidence and clear arguments before them, and they tend to make the same kinds of mistakes over and over, no matter how often their errors are pointed out.

Does all of this sound about right to you? Then you, sir or madam, are a naive realist. What is naive realism? Social psychologists describe naive realism as the worldview characterized by the acceptance of these three tenets:

1. I see the world as it really is, with my beliefs following from the evidence I have about the world in a relatively straightforward and unmediated way.

2. If other people have access to the same information and interpret and process it in a relatively reasonable and open-minded way, then they will come to the same conclusions as me.

3. If others claim not to share my views, that’s either because a) they haven’t had access to the same information, b) they haven’t thought clearly enough to reason properly from evidence to conclusions, c) their views are being distorted by some personal bias or ideology, or d) they are not being honest about what they believe.

If you have been nodding along to these tenets, you may be wondering, is “naive realism” such a bad thing? If I really am more dedicated to the pursuit of truth and more discerning than most people, do I really deserve to be called “naive”? Well, there are a lot of people out there who accept (more or less) the tenets of naive realism, have access to the same evidence, and have different views. I suppose that it’s possible that you’re the one who has managed to get most everything right. But you should be at least a little bit concerned that, perhaps, you have been somewhat overconfident in your ability to reason in a properly dispassionate way from your experiences to each of your beliefs, without distortion or distraction from the biases and preconceptions that human beings seem prone to accumulate. And, perhaps, you have been a bit too harsh and disparaging of those who have come to hold views that differ from yours.

It’s something to think about, at least.


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The visible hand is in your pocket

For the most part, people should be able to manage their money how they wish. It's their money, so they can decide what to spend it on or invest it in, whether to borrow more, whether they want to give some of it away, and so on.

Of course, there are exceptions. If a person's business venture turns into massive debt, or if he does not have enough money to eat, he gets some financial assistance. And most everyone has to give money to the government, which provides an enormous number of services, making our country and our food and our streets safer, our children better educated, and our old people healthier, among other things.

So, in general, the government needs to collect enough money to do all of the things that it does, but it should do so in a way that's as fair and unobtrusive as possible. For instance, it can go easy on collecting when we're hard up for cash, but then hit us up for more when we have some extra dough sitting around. That's called countercyclical fiscal policy.

But lately, the government has decided to toss fairness and unobtrusiveness to the wind and get its grubby little hands all mixed up in people's finances. The US government has decided to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to distribute among its citizens as "tax breaks". Thank you very much, government, but I'd rather take out my own loans on my own terms, rather than having these loans forced upon me and my fellow citizens, on terms that haven't even been made clear. When are we going to have to pay back all this money? And what will the bill come to?

What's worse, the government seems to want to turn this "loans for everybody" program into some sort of centrally-planned redistribution. The people who are going to have to pay most of the loans back are going to be different people from the ones who are getting most of the money. This isn't strategically-targeted redistribution, either, like it is when they take a little extra from people who have a little extra sitting around and use it to make sure that everybody eats and that people whose jobs have ended can still get medical care for the rest of their years. If it's targeted at anyone, it's giving extra cash to people who are already making quite a bit of it, especially if their money is coming from something other than their job. It's almost as if they were orchestrating this strange sort of redistribution just to show that they could.

So, government, stop fooling around with people's money, giving people unrequested loans and asking others to pay them back on terms-to-be-named-later, and start giving people more freedom to make their own financial decisions. You focus on your own finances, and we'll focus on ours.


Monday, September 27, 2004

Justifying murderers

Let's say that someone, we'll call him C, asserts without hyperbole that someone else, we'll call him X, deserves to die for what he has done, even though X has broken no law. The press picks up on this inflammatory statement, so C is asked to clarify. He states, in all sincerity, that he does believe that what X is doing is terribly wrong, and that morality dictates that X should be killed for it. However, C makes clear, he is not advocatig that people go and kill X themselves. Since there is also a duty to obey the law, they should let X live, but they should strive to use the political process to make X's activities illegal and punishable by death.

Is this slight backtrack sufficient for us to forgive C's call to kill a man who has done nothing illegal? Well, let's further suppose that there are people out there who are more radical than C in their beliefs. They place the dictates of their morality above the law, and would like to kill those who are doing things like what X is doing. Perhaps some of them have already killed people like X in the past, or they are likely to do so in the future, or they are likely to kill people who try to promote what X has done or refuse to condemn him. If our story takes place in the past, we might already know that people who supported X's (legal but allegedly immoral) actions were killed after C made his statement. The exact details shouldn't matter too much, as long as we understand that, even though C does not actually want people to give X what he deserves, he is making his statement that X deserves to be killed in a climate where other people are seeking to kill people like X. Additionally, let's suppose that C is a public figure, whose statements may lend some credibility to the beliefs of these more radical groups. Now, how do you suppose that C should be treated by civilized society?

Well, the responses from civilized society have varied. If C is Yusuf Islam, X is Salman Rushdie, X's allegedly immoral action is blasphemy in publishing his book Satanic Verses, the actions took place in 1989, and the radicals are fundamentalist Muslims, some of whom killed translators of Rushdie's book and moderate Muslims who opposed the censorship of Rushdie, then the answer, for many people on the right and some on the left, is that C deserves no sympathy from us for being deported from the United States in 2004, and that even if deportation is perhaps a bit excessive (and maybe even illegal) it is not an outrage.

Now, if C represents Tom Coburn, X is any doctor who performs an abortion (except to save the mother's life), the actions are taking place in the present, and the radicals are mostly fundamentalist Christians, some of whom have killed doctors and are likely to kill more doctors, then the answer, for many people on the right, is to try to get C elected to the United States Senate.

That's moral clarity for you.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Slope Slippin' goes Volokh

In another one of those crazy blogging coincidences, Eugene Volokh has a post up on slippery slope arguments, advertising a talk that he'll be giving on the topic and providing a link to a paper of his on the mechanisms that cause slipperiness in slopes. However, as far as I can tell there is no discussion in the paper of the reverse problem that I discuss, where trying to stay above the slope actually makes you more likely to fall to the bottom.


Thursday, September 23, 2004

Equal Time

Since I've been giving a lot of blogspace to Satan lately, it's only fair to put in a few words about God. Some of those who claim to be able to read His will from Earthly signs are claiming that he has come out against the Republicans in Florida, and thus is most likely pro-Kerry. This time, instead of acting through something like tea leaves, a ram, or the stars, he has sent hurricanes. (Via Cynical-C)

(If anyone thinks that I've misrepresented their views in this post, feel free to correct me in the comments.)


Who's next?

First, they came for the crazy anti-semitic chess champions, and I did not speak out because I was not a crazy anti-semitic chess champion. Then they came for the easy-listening pop musicians who had had a spiritual conversion, and I did not speak out because I was not an easy-listening pop musician who had had a spiritual conversion.



Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Slope Slippin'

When people talk about slippery slopes, they're usually worried about one thing: if you start down the slope, you might slide to the bottom. But that's not the only risk, and it's sometimes not even the most serious. After all, if you can see the slope below you, there's a chance that you can inch downwards for a ways, being careful not to lose your footing, and stake out some ground in the middle of the slope. You might even get comfortable traversing a region of the slope, without even coming close to exploring the bottom.

To avoid slipping down, though, people often try to remain firmly planted on the apparently flat, and thus safe, ground at the top of the slope. Often far more unstable than it appears, this ground may erode and crumble beneath your feet, sending you tumbling towards the bottom with little chance to grab a handhold on the intervening slope. Or some external force, which is strongest up on the flat plain, may knock you over and make you skid down the incline.

For example, consider tax increases. Some people oppose any tax increase, even a slight increase on a small portion of the population, as a step in the wrong direction, as if it was likely to spread. But really, you're most likely to need widespread tax increases if you don't increase anyone's taxes now, and you just let the deficit grow until it gets too big to leave alone. Then the fiscal insecurity hits you and knocks you tumbling down the slope. If you had gone partway down the slope of tax increases, then the blow wouldn't have hit you with such force.

Can anyone think of better examples or other neglected problems with slippery slopes?


Attn: Terrorists

If you are an Islamic terrorist, and you have somehow managed to stumble upon this little blog o' mine, please listen to this important strategic message. Whoever you are, if you know any terrorists, or of any ways to spread this message so that it might reach some terrorists, then please pass it along.

Using smallpox as a weapon might seem like an effective way to kill a lot of people, since the disease may spread among a large unvaccinated population. But there is no way to stop the spread, and it is bound to reach the Muslim world. Since the West has the most resources for dealing with smallpox, the people of the Muslim world are bound to suffer much more from the disease than the people of the West. Spreading smallpox will not help your cause -- it will mostly hurt people in poorer countries.

Thank you for your attention.

This message has been brought to you through the efforts of Matthew Yglesias and Mark Kleiman.


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Speak of the devil!

If you have any doubts about Kerry's position on Iraq, read his latest speech. If you have time, compare it to the speech he made when he voted to give Bush the authority to go to war. If you don't have time, at least read Slate's summary of his latest speech.

Here are a couple choice excerpts of the speech:

"The administration told us we’d be greeted as liberators. They were wrong.

They told us not to worry about looting or the sorry state of Iraq’s infrastructure. They were wrong.

They told us we had enough troops to provide security and stability, defeat the insurgents, guard the borders and secure the arms depots. They were wrong.

They told us we could rely on exiles like Ahmed Chalabi to build political legitimacy. They were wrong.

They told us we would quickly restore an Iraqi civil service to run the country and a police force and army to secure it. They were wrong."

"[T]he President must get serious about training Iraqi security forces.

Last February, Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that more than 210,000 Iraqis were in uniform. Two weeks ago, he admitted that claim was exaggerated by more than 50 percent. Iraq, he said, now has 95,000 trained security forces.

But guess what? Neither number bears any relationship to the truth. For example, just 5,000 Iraqi soldiers have been fully trained, by the administration’s own minimal standards. And of the 35,000 police now in uniform, not one has completed a 24-week field-training program. Is it any wonder that Iraqi security forces can’t stop the insurgency or provide basic law and order?

The President should urgently expand the security forces training program inside and outside Iraq. He should strengthen the vetting of recruits, double classroom training time, and require follow-on field training. He should recruit thousands of qualified trainers from our allies, especially those who have no troops in Iraq. He should press our NATO allies to open training centers in their countries. And he should stop misleading the American people with phony, inflated numbers."

There is one line of the speech that didn't create the right image for me, though. Kerry said "Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell."

(Read the rest: 5.0 out of 5.0)


Monday, September 20, 2004

Mention in Fafblog

Looks like I'm moving up in the world if my blog is getting mentioned on Fafblog. And by Satan, no less:

SATAN: BLAAAAAAAARRRGH! Yes, by Beelzebub's blistered backside! The Democratic Party has been my greatest tool in the corruption and destruction of Man since the days of FDR, but now it stands ready to realize my darkest dreams! First will come gay marriage, then the banning of the Bible, then the scorching of the earth before the Beast of the Bottomless Pit, and then - THEN - UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE FOR ALL! MWA-HAHAHAHA!


Sunday, September 19, 2004

Shadow steps

Fact of the day:
If you're standing someplace where light casts shadows, then standing on someone else's shadow is a physical impossibility, while standing on your own is unavoidable.

Or, more snappily, no one stands on my shadow but me.


Saturday, September 18, 2004

Going to war

Here's an excerpt from an October 2002 speech outlining a strong and sensible position on Iraq:

There is no question that Saddam Hussein represents a threat. I have heard even my colleagues who oppose the President's resolution say we have to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. They also say we have to force the inspections. And to force the inspections, you have to be prepared to use force.


As bad as he is, Saddam Hussein, the dictator, is not the cause of war. Saddam Hussein sitting in Baghdad with an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is a different matter.


Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.


If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent--and I emphasize "imminent"--threat to this country which requires the President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.


If we go it alone without reason, we risk inflaming an entire region, breeding a new generation of terrorists, a new cadre of anti-American zealots, and we will be less secure, not more secure, at the end of the day, even with Saddam Hussein disarmed.


...[I]f in the end we are at war, we will have an obligation, ultimately, to the Iraqi people with whom we are not at war. This is a war against a regime, mostly one man. So other nations in the region and all of us will need to help create an Iraq that is a place and a force for stability and openness in the region. That effort is going to be long term, costly, and not without difficulty, given Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions and history of domestic turbulence. In Afghanistan, the administration has given more lipservice than resources to the rebuilding effort. We cannot allow that to happen in Iraq, and we must be prepared to stay the course over however many years it takes to do it right.

Read the rest of the text of Senator Kerry's speech from the Senate floor here (via Matt Yglesias).


Friday, September 17, 2004

Haircut Blogging pt. 2: Vanity

“I ... look at my hair in the mirror, think about how good it looks, and actually appreciate it.” That sounds incredibly vain, and normally it’s something that I wouldn’t do – wouldn’t even think of doing – in part because it would be so vain. But right after a haircut, well, then even this caricatured account of my thought process doesn’t seem so bad. Why is that?

Well, for starters, I have a perfect excuse/reason for examining my hair. I just paid to get it changed, now how did it turn out? Looking good, I hope. There are other times when I have a good reason to examine my hair, like when I want it to look decent before I go out, but there is a crucial difference. When I’m fixing my hair I have a very instrumental, results-oriented point of view about it. It’s one of those things I have to do, like brushing my teeth, and I want to get it done. I just need to bring it to some standard of acceptability so I can stop paying attention to it. After a haircut, though, I’m just looking at it, without any time pressure, without any need to bring about some result, and with the hope that it does look good. This observational stance is more like the way that someone looks at art, and more likely to bring about some kind of appreciation.

Like looking at art? Appreciation? I’m starting to sound vain again. How could anyone besides a self-centered pretty boy look at his own hair that way? The answer is that I’m not looking at my hair as my hair, but as someone else’s handiwork. “How did they do?” I’m wondering. “Is it a good haircut?” I’m not asking myself “How good is my hair?” or “How do I look?” Sure, it’s the same hair on my head, but I have a different intentional stance towards it: “How does it look?” I can appreciate my hair because the barber steps in between myself and my hair, and lets me see it from more of a 3rd person point of view rather than as part of me.

Something similar happens with my writing. Excluding the actual process of creation, my appreciation for what I have written well is strongest months or even years after I’ve written it. Then the writing is distant, well in the past, and I'm not so emotionally tied up with it. At that point, admiring what I’ve written no longer feels like admiring myself. Plus, as with the hair situation, it helps that I’m looking at it as something that’s done, rather than as something that I could work on or should have fixed up more.

So what's really happening here? Am I not being vain at all, but only appreciating something that I'm not associating that closely with myself, even though it sounds a bit vain when I talk about it out of context? Or is my true vanity only showing through in these situations where I let my guard down? I do not know.


Thursday, September 16, 2004

Escaping the gated community

One of the saddest consequences of the Nixon Administration's disregard for the law and the democratic process is the proliferation of -gate-suffixed scandals in the years that have followed. Even the damage that is being inflicted on our language by these scandals is unbearable. Why, this year alone there have been TWO 'Memogate's, the latest pitting the blogosphere against its greatest enemy yet, Dan Rather, via an amateur investigation into the formatting of 1970s typewriters.

We cannot go on like this. As that one song said, how many gates must something something something before something something something something? Well it is time to take a stand: the gates must go!

But if we abandon this vital part of our American Dictionary, what will we do when we want to make something sound like a Big Important Political Scandal? The answer is simple: reach a bit deeper into that wonderful sack of words that is American history.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me reintroduce you to the latest Washington scandal, in its new and improved form: Memodome. With a name that sounds both modern and reminiscent of the days of Warren G. Harding, Memodome is sure to attract the attention of the people out in Blogland, the Mainstream Media, and all those Ordinary Folks who are just looking for the right "Scandal Product" to notice and "consume" via outrage.

This new product is not only a true original, it also creates a brand image and introduces a whole line of -dome products that are in development, pending future scandals, semiscandals, and pseudoscandals. But if you still have any doubts about Memodome's superiority to Memogate, just try them on one more time, forwards and backwards. "Memogate" - stale and grating. "Memodome" - new, fresh, bubbly, and exciting. "Etagomem" - what the hell is that? But "EmoDomeM" - why that sounds like the 13th dome filled with Emo Kids! And you know that it was meant to be, because both forwards and backwards, it's full of dome-y goodness.

Memodome - it's still about all that important stuff, like incompetence at a major media network, 1970s typesetting, Dan Rather's political bias, the awesome power of blogs, and the fact that these forged memos sounded plausible enough to the Bush Administration for them to pass them along without comment. But now it's got a great new name!

Update: It looks like the name of choice has been shifting towards Rathergate, or, for the typographically clever, Rathergate. A new scandal has broken in Washington, and this time it's personal. But don't get too comfortable with this hep new title, because backwards, it's a mouthful. Etagrehtar?


The Perfect Haircut

Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia continues his efforts to use practical mathematics to unveil underlying truths about our day-to-day lives. This time, he argues based on economic reasoning that it is best to get a haircut that is a bit shorter than your ideal hair length. I am concerned, however, that his model leaves out an important fact.

I disagree with him about some of the specifics of the utility vs. hair length curve; in particular, I think that having hair that’s too short tends to be worse than hair that’s too long by an equal number of inches. Perhaps that is because my hair is just a bit longer than that dangerous “not quite a buzz cut” zone that Neal mentions in the comments, but it may be rather common because hair length is bounded below (by baldness) but not above. However, it is still a good idea to get a haircut that's a little too short for people whose disutility vs. hair length curves are asymmetrical in this way, as long as the disutility curve is continuous (as it should be). In fact, assuming that you get a haircut according to a regular schedule and you’ve decided on a certain length of time that you want between haircuts, you’ll minimize your total disutility by getting your hair cut so that your hair is just as bad right after the cut (on account of being too short) as it was just before the cut (on account of being too long). That’s the equilibrium point where the marginal benefits of cutting the hair longer (or shorter) equal the marginal costs.

The real flaw in Glen’s model reflects a very general and uncontroversial observation: people tend to notice things more when they change drastically than when they are hardly changing. Applying this piece of conventional wisdom to haircuts, we would suspect that people pay more attention to hair right after it has been cut. Indeed, this does seem to be true, at least in my experience. Only after getting a haircut am I likely to look at my hair in the mirror, think about how good it looks, and actually appreciate it. The rest of the time it’s just sort of there. My Total Utility is much more sensitive to my Hair Utility immediately following a haircut, so it makes sense for me to want my haircut to look good the day that I get it.

Hair is not just something that we consume privately for ourselves, though, it is something that we display to the world, in hopes of impressing others and attracting their admiration (or at least not doing the opposite). And other people also tend to notice your hair right after a haircut. When is the last time that someone has told you “I like your hair – has it been growing?” For people who see you regularly, at least, it’s an advantage to have good hair right after the cut, when it will catch their attention.

These one-time benefits of a good haircut must be included in a thorough analysis, in addition to the utility or disutility that accrues from having hair of a given length on any particular day. For most people, then, the ideal haircut is not as short as Glen (or the simple marginal costs = marginal benefits equation) would have you believe. Barbers who try to make your hair perfect as you walk out of their shop may actually be responding to their customers’ desires, rather than their ignorance.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

culminating the cumulative case?

At Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella responds to my comments on his arguments on the cumulative case and its use in defending the decision to go to war in Iraq. Got that? I’ll reply thematically to some of the points that he made in his response. First, a minor point with a good link:

On Examples: When Mr. Vallicella contended that I should give examples of how our resources could have been used had we not gone to war in Iraq, he was apparently looking at a version of my post without the links that I included to stories on the resurgence of terrorists, warlords, and opium in Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and the nuclear non-proliferation agreement for which the stated US policy is that verification would be too expensive. For an excellent summary of what is not being done on nuclear nonproliferation, see hilzoy’s post at Obsidian Wings. Now, on to some more central themes:

On Terminology, with a Model of Cumulative Case Arguments: Mr. Vallicella notes that much of the terminology that I used in discussing cumulative case arguments remained undefined, so I’ll try to provide some definitions and a model for thinking about the kind of cumulative case argument that would be relevant for situations like the Iraq war. I was not discussing logical arguments used to establish propositions, which are correct when they reason validly from true premises and worthless otherwise, but the more practical case of arguments in support of a course of action. An argument (or a reason, which I am using more or less interchangeably) in favor of a course of action is a sufficient reason if it justifies that course of action regardless of all other considerations. If other considerations are relevant, that reason is insufficient. Most practical arguments, like those that Mr. Vallicella gives in favor of the war in Iraq, are fairly obviously insufficient.

Since most arguments fall into the category of “insufficient but not worthless”, it often makes sense to discriminate arguments in a more fine-grained way by talking about how strong they are. An argument’s strength varies on a continuum from stronger to weaker. Roughly, it is stronger when it shows a relevant consideration to be more important. A more precise definition might be that a stronger argument is one that should be more persuasive (though I’m not attached to this definition). I say “should” rather than “would” because I’d like to talk about idealized people who are sensitive to reasons, rather than dealing with all of the intricacies of human psychology. (To be consistent with this terminology, it would have been better for me to have written “weak reasons” rather than “bad reasons” in my initial post).

Before all of the relevant reasons are discussed, you could imagine that reasonable people’s positions on whether to undertake a course of action would be spread out on a continuum, from confidently favoring it to confidently opposing it, with ambivalence in the middle. Providing a strong reason in favor of the course of action would push (or perhaps “attract” – I’m not sure which makes for a better metaphor) reasonable people towards the “in favor” end of the spectrum, causing some to change their minds in that direction. A weaker argument would have a milder effect in terms of the number of people moved and the distance that they are moved. A cumulative argument would provide several pushes in one direction, though more would need to be said in order to figure out the size of the net effect created by several possibly interrelated pushes.

I think that this model should make my claims about the “Divide and Debilitate” method clearer. Showing that one side’s arguments are weaker than they thought means that fewer reasonable people would be attracted to their end of the spectrum. If their arguments can be shown to be weak enough, and if there are strong enough arguments attracting people to the other side, then reasonable people would be expected to cluster around the opposite pole. If we want to be reasonable, we should do the same.

On “shifting the debate” to Bush’s Handling of the War: The debate over the Iraq war was not a discussion of some abstract idea of war in Iraq, it was a debate of an actual, particular war that would be conducted by the Bush Administration. Arguments in favor of the war had to establish, not just that it was possible for a war on Iraq to produce results that would justify it, but that Bush’s war was likely to do so. Since the war was going to be a complex course of action, the motives, aspirations, and competence of those undertaking the war were highly relevant. Before the war, many peole recognized this fact and shared their doubts about the Bush administration. Since the war, many peolpe have claimed that Bush’s poor handling of the war has shown that it was right to doubt whether the war in Iraq, as led by Bush, would live up to its potential. Von at Obsidian Wings, for instance, ponders whether it was ever reasonable to believe that the Bush Administration would fight the war forcefully enough to turn Iraq into what we wanted it to be. Bringing up Bush’s handling of the war is not a shift of the debate, since we all should have been considering, from the beginning, how the war would play out as it under Bush's handling.

On War on Terror: BV writes: “First, Islamic terrorism is not identical to al-Qaeda. The latter is just one of many Islamic terrorist outfits. Second, al-Qaeda is not identical to Osama bin Laden. Thus it is quite absurd to say or imply that the whole effort is directed toward capturing or killing Osama, or that failure to do the latter shows that the effort is off track or unsuccessful. Third, it is not the events of 9/11 alone that motivate the coalition's anti-terrorist efforts. There have been many terrorists attacks in many different places for many years. The target here are Islamic terrorists whatever and whenever they strike, and the governments that support them. The total effort has many phases and many parts..."

I agree with what I've quoted here. I disagree with the statements that precede and follow this quotation, but I would not like to argue at this point over what liberals or conservatives fail to appreciate or the extent to which Iraq was involved in Islamic terrorism. I would like to add one more point to the list of non-identity relations: terrorism is not identical to Islamic terrorism. There should be more discussion of the big picture and terrorism’s place in the modern world, as Robert Wright attempts in this piece.

On Defeatism: I am unclear on the main point of Mr. Vallicella’s comments on defeatism. One reading of his charges of defeatism is that any argument of the form “Doing X to try to deal with problem P will end up making problem P worse off” is defeatist and thus suspect. This claim is absurd, as you should realize if I tell you that I intend to fix my broken computer by hitting it with a hammer. Mr. Vallicella seems to use this same kind of “defeatist” reasoning in his original post on the cumulative case when he notes that an attempt to deal militarily with the threat posed by North Korea would drastically increase the risk of nuclear war. In general, the way to deal with this kind of “defeatist” situation is not to do X more aggressively, but to be clever in finding some alternative strategy that does reduce problem P.

An alternate reading of his statements on defeatism is that the claim that the Iraq war would benefit terrorist organizations by increasing support for them and animosity towards the United States is wrong on its merits, since in fact the war would weaken the terrorists because it was part of the process of "inflict[ing] such a blow on them and the states that sponsor them that they give up." Thus, those who believe that the war would be counterproductive are being pessimistic and defeatist. If that is his argument, the focus should be put on the claim that the argument is wrong on its merits (what, specifically, would induce the terrorists to give up?), not on the psychology of its proponents. Charges of defeatism are a distraction from the central empirical question of what the likely consequences of some proposed course of action are, and from the central strategic question, which is what other promising courses of action are available.


Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned

Mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.

Observations like this one are the basis for some of the latest scandals to have been reported by the likes of Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution and Michael Bérubé at Michael Bérubé.

More here, here, and here.


Tuesday, September 14, 2004

seems good?

It is strange that both familiarity and novelty can have the effect of quality on an unsuspecting mind.


Sunday, September 12, 2004

"That depends on the definition of 'of' " and other ling questions

- Give the definition of the word "of" as it is used in the following context, and provide one other example in which the word "of" is used in the same way: "A predatory bird is known as a bird of prey."

- If you’d like to go by two letters, rather than a first name, it helps a lot for one of those letters to be a "J". Why is this?

- Many people complain about the word "literally" being used to add emphasis to figurative phrases. How is this usage different from the use of the word "veritable" to stress the aptness of a metaphor? Why don't people complain about "veritable"?

- When you think about it, doesn't the word "frosting" imply a beautiful image? Sugar coats these flakes of corn, like frost on a blade of grass.


Saturday, September 11, 2004

A moment of silence, please, in remembrance of the 11th of September











Fri-day is Pie-day!!!!!!!!

Friday without pie-blogging is like life without pie: incomplete. Yet Fafblog is sometimes (shall we say) creative about the days of the week. I know, I know, they'll probably just say that pie-blogging transcends days of the week, and that the problem is that I'm imprisoned in linear time. But what can I do? In the past, I would've ended up wandering the internet, searching for pies and pie-blogging. Well not this time! This time, the pie will come to Blar.

Behold! The Escambia County video pie. Oh, some may mock it. Some may call it cheap and unprofessional. Some may say that it was just cooked up by a couple guys in somebody's basement. Some might consider it vague or imprecise. Some might even accuse it of politicizing pie and using that which naturally unites us for petty partisan advantage.

But some cannot appreciate the wonder, the beauty, of the pie. Look at that pie, that pie that was brought to us for the purpose of running for office. Look at that Pie of Democracy, look at it squarely, and tell me that it does not mean anything to you. Can you you cannot. This is the pie of low-budget television, the pi that is used to find the diameter rather than the circumference or area, the pie that does not shout out from its plate "I am pie!" It is a low-key pie, but it loses none of its pieness from standing in front of a whiteboard, held by a man with a dry-erase marker, in the sights of a home video camera, as the pie that everyone must like. You may call it a sell-out to the poorly financed establishment, but you cannot call it less of a pie. It represents all that is pie, all that is American, and all that we love. It is irresistable.


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Pray for the internet

Maths holy grail could bring disaster for internet

There is the warning heading the cautionary essay of the Guardian: mathematicians set on delving into Things That Should Not Be Spoken Of are threatening the internet itself. Instead of acting with prudence and restraint, they plunge heedlessly onward towards the abyss. Bent on pursuing their reckless reductionist ideology, they seek a universal mathematical solvent that will break every number up into parts.

Foreign to them is the idea that there is something special about each whole number, something that we might even call mystical or spiritual, that vanishes, like a vapor, when the number is dissected by their cold, hard mathematical scalpels. Basic phenomenological questions like what it is like for that number fail to make even a fleeting appearance in the heads of these people who can do nothing more than smash things apart and see what remains.

Since the internet is put together with numbers, those intent on chopping up numbers are bound to tear apart the very fabric of the internet. Now buzzing with conversation and febrile energy and brimming over with non-zero-sumness, as the seamless web of the internet unravels it will lose all its meaning, all its emotion, all its experiences, if not its very existence.

In their quest for the holy grail of mathematics, these Number Theorists have envisioned themselves as great creators, like God, of eternal life and harmony. But instead they can only bring destruction and division. Such is the hubris of Man.

(hat tip: Agoraphilia)


Tuesday, September 07, 2004

... or you could give the money to Oxfam ...

How did donating to Oxfam come to be philosophers' moral cause of choice?

Whenever philosophers need an example of a good action that helps others, it seems, they speak of donating to Oxfam. How did this come to be? And, more importantly, does the frequent appearance of Oxfam in thought experiments help Oxfam's fundraising? I'd imagine that it's good publicity to be every philosopher's example of a good action.

Oxfam's message seems to be getting through to the philosophical community, at least, as there are many philosophers who donate to Oxfam or encourage donations to Oxfam. But is there any evidence that the thought-experiment-based publicity has caused an overall increase in their donations?


“... it has everything you want and more”, a dialogue in three characters

A– "...and more"? That’s not good. "Everything you want" is perfection, and then they’re adding in additional things that you won’t like. It’s as if they’re bragging about having things you don’t want, and a lot of people won’t even notice because our society has this crazy "more is better" thing going on.

B– Now, wait. You’re switching between "want" and "like" there. I think they’re saying that it has everything you want, plus some other things that you’ll like, though you don’t know that you’d like them & you may not even know that they exist.

A– I think those can still count as things you want. But even granting that "want" is not always used with this more expansive definition and that "everything you want" is ambiguous on this point, the way to indicate that you intend to include these wants that you don’t even know you have is not to add a wide-open "and more" that could include anything.

B– That’s a funny so-called "expansive" definition of "want". As if everything you could ever come to want, even things that haven’t been invented yet, are already just latent wants waiting hidden inside of you. I don’t think they want to promise to satisfy all of those so-called wants, though I suppose you could never prove them guilty of failing to satisfy a "want" that you don’t know you have.

C– It seems like using an expanded definition of want, or tacking the "and more" at the end and assuming it means well, sends this promise into a utopian direction. Though even with the restricted version of "want" it seems to be offering perhaps a bit more than it can back up, no? I mean, who’s to say that a person’s wants are all consistent with each other? It’s like those people who try to whet your attention by telling you "everything you’ve heard is true!" Well some of the stuff I’ve heard contradicts some of the other stuff. I doubt that these folks offering me everything even know what all I want, let alone how to get it all for me.

B– So even this restricted "everything you want" is awfully utopian. But it doesn’t seem all that great to me, as far as utopias go. It only satisfies those wants that you have right now, the ones you can think of, and I, for one, don’t want my utopia to be limited by my imagination.


Monday, September 06, 2004

The Corrections

This important correction comes from Matthew Yglesias, who writes:

Contrary to what I've previously written, it is not the case that the Bush administration scuttled an anti-proliferation treaty in order to make it easier for Pakistan to enhance its nuclear arsenal.

Printing this correction does not imply that I should be held accountable for Matt's original statement or other statements made by people on my blogroll. Indeed, the folks on my blogroll seem to be contradicting each other all the time. I'll take this opportunity to print the two-pronged Blargh Blog corrections policy:

  1. Any individual or organization engaged in public discussion, such as a newspaper, a TV show, or a blogger, has an obligation to truth. They should be held accountable for their statements, attempt not to make false or misleading statements, and correct any false statements of theirs that come to light. Whenever possible the correction should be attached to the original statement, and, if the error is not merely peripheral or incidental, it should receive a level of coverage at least as high as the coverage given to the original statement.
  2. Efforts should be made to make the system of public discussion spread truth rather than falsehood.

This correction falls under the second prong of my policy, which deals with furthering community goals rather than personal standards & accountability.

Update: Matt has now (partially?) retracted his correction, noting that the original source for his claim actually does contend that "Pakistani (and Israeli) objections were one of several factors in play."


Taking apart the cases for war

In a recent post at Maverick Philosopher on the cumulative case for the war in Iraq, Bill Vallicella makes at least six separate points, which range from the insightful to the dubious. I'll give my gloss on six points of his, and then I'll look at these claims in order:
  1. If there are several different reasons for undertaking some course of action, that course of action may be justified by the combination of these reasons even if no single reason is sufficient to justify it.
  2. The war in Iraq is justifiable based on this sort of cumulative argument. Sufficient reasons for war are provided by the combination of the the risk that Saddam had WMDs, Saddam's ties to Palestinian and perhaps other terrorists, the value of liberating the Iraqi people, the need to enforce UN resolutions if the UN failed to do so, and the value of ending ongoing hostilities like Saddam's attacks on our planes.
  3. A common and fallacious debating tactic, the "Divide and Conquer" technique, is to take each of the opposing side's reasons for their belief, one by one, and show that none of them are (individually) sufficient for that belief.
  4. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, many liberals made the "Divide and Conquer" fallacy. For instance, when faced with the argument that it would be good to liberate Iraq, they would respond by saying something like "if liberation is so good, then why don't we liberate North Korea?"
  5. Another fallacy is to confuse reasons with one person's motives. When deciding whether to support someone's efforts to undertake some course of action, you should focus on whether that course of action was justified by the reasons for it, not on the motivation that caused that person to undertake that course of action.
  6. Liberals made this Reasons vs. Motives fallacy too, arguing against the war on Iraq by claiming (for instance) that Bush was after oil or out to avenge his father.

The claim that I've labeled as Mr. Vallicella's first point is correct and worth noting. People tend to overuse the form of argument that lays out a chain of reasoning, with each step depending on all of the previous assertions. The problem is that such a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you happen to introduce a controversial premise or if you make a shaky jump in your reasoning, then the argument will not be convincing. Especially when dealing with practical issues, like deciding on or justifying a course of action, it's better to try to connect your conclusion to various starting points with several lines of reasoning.

However, having lots of reasons doesn't necessarily mean that they all add up to something strong. Lots of bad reasons usually don't add up to a good reason, and webs of reasoning may have weak points that many of the threads pass through. Further, it's important to figure out how all of the different arguments in favor of the conclusion combine, and how they fare when stacked up against the arguments against the conclusion or in favor of alternative conclusions, in order to see whether the conclusion is justified.

I disagree with Mr. Vallicella's second claim that the war in Iraq was justified, though laying out all of my reasons for this position would take me beyond the scope of this post. One problem is that some of the reasons that he gives for war are not just insufficient but weak. What is the point, for instance, of enforcing our interpretation of a UN resolution when most of the world believes that we are acting contrary to the will of the UN?

Perhaps more significantly, he ignores the two strongest reasons against the war. First, it should have been clear when we decided to go to war that a lot of people would not be happy with this. Some of these people would be Iraqis and other Arabs who might come to support or participate in terrorism. Thus, as folks like Richard Clarke have noted, the war seemed likely to create more terrorists than it destroyed. Some of the other people who would not be happy with the war were potential allies (like Germany and the people of Spain) who could contribute to the war on terrorism in a variety of valuable ways, but might be alienated by the war in Iraq. The second reason is the opportunity cost of the war. There are a lot of good humanitarian, anti-terrorist, and anti-proliferation things that we could be doing with over a hundred billion dollars and much of our army. Instead, we're spending our time and resources on Iraq.

Mr. Vallicella's third claim correctly identifies a fallacy, though I don't know how common this fallacy is. However, there is a similar form of argumentation that is not fallacious, what I might call "Divide and Debilitate". If you take the opposing side's reasons one by one, and, instead of merely showing that each reason is not sufficient for their conclusion, you show that each reason is not particularly strong, then you are arguing well, not fallaciously. Indeed, given the space limitations of almost any forum for debate, it would be almost impossible to satisfactorily address all of the opponents' arguments at once.

The flip side of the "cumulative case" is that it is inimical to reasonable discourse to be an endless font of arguments. If, whenever the other side challenges one of your arguments, you come back with some other argument, you create a flurry of unrelated arguments that leaves little room for comparing the strongest arguments that lie on either side of the discussion.

The fourth claim seems very distant from the actual debate over Iraq as I remember it. Though most people's reasons for their position on the war on Iraq have crystallized over time, during the run-up to that war the debate was much more of a mess. Proponents of the war tossed off a vast assortment of arguments for disarmament or regime change or hawkishness. No effort was spared in associating (at least rhetorically) the war against Iraq with the War on Terrorism. We heard a lot about aluminum tubes, a meeting in Prague, and a terrorist group in Iraq (Ansar al-Islam) which, it was rarely mentioned, happened to be outside the geographic area that Saddam controlled. There were also a wide variety of arguments against the war, some good and some bad (though I don't recall anyone making the Iraq-North Korea comparison when talking about liberation.)

Debaters struggled to deal with the proliferation of arguments, often turning to the "Divide and Debilitate" strategy. For instance, people opposed to this war in Iraq have noted that removing Saddam was unlikely to seriously weaken Palistinian terrorism, that Saddam's attempts to attack our planes are so ineffectual as to be almost irrelevant, that there seemed to be no working relationship between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, that there wasn't strong evidence that Saddam had weapons (like nuclear bombs) that were capable of causing destruction on a massive scale, that weapons inspectors were in the country searching for any such weapons, and that using our army to forcibly end a tyranny and replace it with a better government is perhaps a risky and inefficient way to pursue humanitarian and pro-democracy goals. If these arguments are correct, then it would seem that the cumulative case does not hang together well enough to justify the war in Iraq.

The fifth claim (like the other odd-numbered claims) is correct, as far as it goes. However, it misses a distinction between what we might call simple and complex courses of action. A simple action is one where almost all of the input that you put into the course of action is the decision to undertake it. If you contribute money to Organization X which helps mentor young people, then the beneficial impact of that money is in the hands of Organization X and does not depend on your motives. A complex course of action is one where you continue to exert significant influence as events unfold. If you decide to mentor a young person, that decision may turn out wonderfully or horribly depending on your continued interactions. The motives, commitment, and abilities of a person who makes a complex decision matter, because the course of action only goes well as long as he guides it well.

The final claim ignores this distinction between simple and complex courses of action. A war that involves an attempt to create a stable and democratic government in a place where there has been tyranny requires continuous decision-making and adjustments. Indeed, many of the arguments against Bush are that he has botched the creation of a stable Iraqi state through incompetence, for instance, by disbanding the Iraqi army and by putting off democratic elections. Thus, even though the theoretical question about going to war in Iraq may seem like a simple yes or no question, the actual war has been highly complex.

I agree that it is unlikely that Bush was driven to war by vengeance or oil. Some people on the left did make these claims, so refuting them does not exactly involve the creation of straw men. Instead, it is more like using a straw-seeking missile to figure out which arguments to refute. There were many arguments put forth of the form "I doubt Bush's commitment & ability to bring about the state of events that I would like to see as a result of a war in Iraq." Instead of focusing on oil and vengeance, the stronger instances of this argument noted Bush's disparaging statements on nation building during the 2000 election, the administration's low-balling of the estimates of the resources needed in Iraq, the utopianism of the people advising the President who envisioned American soldiers greeted as heroes and the easy creation of a democratic Iraq, or the continuing failure to control all of Afghanistan and create a democracy there. It is the duty of someone looking for rational debate to seek out the strongest arguments on the other side, rather than to seek and destroy the weakest claims around.

UPDATE: Bill Vallicella has responded to this post, and I have replied again.


Friday, September 03, 2004


Abstraction is a major driving force of progress. By finding solutions that are more and more general, we can increase the scope of our practical and theoretical knowledge.

It is from this perspective that I have approached Glen's impressive work at Agoraphilia. When it looks like half of a roll of toilet paper is left (based on the change in the radius of the roll), Glen asked, how much of the tp is really left? Using measurements he took of a typical roll, (4 cm in tube diameter and 10 cm in total diameter), Glen found that the answer was about 39% (or, more precisely, 11/28). He then generalized his result to the case where the apparent proportion of roll used is a variable, X. Then the actual fraction of remaining toilet paper, Y, is

Y = [(3X + 2)^2 – 4]/21

In the interest of peer review and further generalization, I treated both the radius of the tube, r, and the radius of the entire roll, R, as variables. Then, using only geometry (calculations of the volumes of cylinders), Y can be found to equal:

Y = [(X^2)(R - r) + 2Xr]/(R + r)

Though it isn't obvious, this formula simplifies to his formula when R = 5 and r = 2. It also verifies Glen's claim that his formula is correct when both r and R change proportionally, since both the numerator and denominator are linear in r and R. That also means that it doesn't matter if you use centimeters or inches or some other unit, or if you measure the diameter or the radius, as long as you're consistent in your choices.

As a test case of this formula, I calculated Y for a roll with a 10" diameter and a 1.625" diameter core, which fits the Surface Mounted Jumbo - Roll Toilet Tissue Dispenser. In that case, when it looks like half of the roll is gone, in reality only [(.5^2)(10 - 1.625) + 2(.5)(1.625)]/(10 + 1.625) = 32% remains. And when it looks like 10% of the roll is still left, there's actually only 3.5% of a roll on the tube.

Chalk another one up for progress.

Update: The fact that changing r and R proportionally does not change Y means that the general formula for Y can be simplified further. Let T be the the ratio of the total diameter of the toilet paper roll to the diameter of the tube, T = R/r. Then

Y = [2X + (T - 1)X^2]/(T + 1)


Ask a linguist

Did I contradict myself in my last post? I came out against slavery, and yet I spoke of "my readers". These readers are presumably people, and wasn't I claiming that I owned them? Because "my" means ownership, right? And owning people means slavery, right?

Words like "my" are called possessives and we use them to talk about things we own, like "my cup", "my car", and "my pet". But we also say things like "my body", "my feelings", "my soul", "my mind", and "my identity". Are we to believe that there is some "me" that is distinct from each of these things and owns them? Then we go on to say "my team", "my country", and "my religion". We sure don't act like these things belong to us - if anything, we belong to them. And we continue - "my father", "my favorite song", "my first trip to a baseball game". There's no ownership implied there, just some kind association, with the precise type of association evident only because of our background knowledge (how are people usually related to religions?). The "my" just lets people know that we're talking about "the cup that is related to me", "the mind that is related to me", "the country that is related to me", or "the readers that are related to me" - we have to use what we know to fill in the blanks about the nature of the relationship. Sometimes, the nature of the association is ambiguous without further context, as with "my team" (am I a player, fan, coach, fantasy league owner, ... ?).

The properties that are mentioned in the "my" statement can help indicate the nature of the relationship between me and the thing. So, he's a doctor and a father, but he's my father (not my doctor) because he's related to me with respect to his fathering but not with respect to his doctoring. And that trip to a baseball game is related to me with respect to it being a "first trip". "My" even gets extended beyond possession when it is used with things that are owned. I can talk about where "my car" is parked even if I've just borrowed the car from a friend. And it's perfectly natural for me to say "she sure cleaned her plate" when she finished all the food on the plate that her host served to her. If you told me "no, that's the host's plate - she was just using it" I would probably laugh at you.

Thus, I'd like to take this opportunity to reitirate to you, my reader, my opposition to slavery and to claim that I have been faithful to that ideal.

Have the so-called possessives always been this open-ended as to the nature of the association that they imply? Or did they start out as a way of indicating actual possession, and expand in meaning over time? That's the question that I'm asking of any linguists out there. I'd also be interested in finding out if bonified linguists are largely in agreement with my analysis of the word "my".


Thursday, September 02, 2004

Who am I?

I imagine, my readers*, that some of you may want to know who I am. So here is a brief summary:

-I go by Blar.

-Things I am in favor of include freedom, democracy, life, health, family, knowledge, progress, happiness, choice, pie, and friendship.

-Things I am opposed to include slavery, torture, suffering, tyranny, slander, terrorism, strife, incompetence, murder, and injustice.

Obviously, this is not a complete summary of my views and their interrelationships. It is a brief summary. But more will come.

If you** are not satisfied with this little description of what I stand for and this promise of more to come, and you just want to know which of the 6 billion people on this Earth is me, I'll give you half the answer. I am male. That eliminates about half of the people who are not me from the list of suspects. Now you just have to eliminate the other half.

*Assuming that such creatures exist

**In the interest of fluency of writing, from here on I'll assume that this term does have a referent.


What have we here?

Centuries ago, people wrote journals (or "logs"), which often included many of their most personal and intimate thoughts. The recent invention of the internet (or "web") has given people an opportunity to share these journals with the world. This wonderful idea demanded a wonderful name, which was created from the mating of the medium and the format: the blog (or "weblog").

"Blog". What a word. Let it jump from your throat and soar past your tongue. "Blog". Like the growl of the wordless blobby monster which is aptly rendered "Blargh!" I am blog, here me roar. You hear?

How could I pass on this medium, this format, and this name? Here I am, Blar, presenting you with Blargh Blog. Welcome.

Some of you out there in the Land of Web may complain that this is like naming a book after the word "book". But there is a difference - a book has to be written and about something before it has a name. But not a blog! All I had when I named this blog was me and the idea of starting a blog. And since I'm not one of those self-centered people who goes around naming things after himself (indeed, I'm more likely to name myself after things), what else did I have to go on? Please, do not judge my young and humble blog too harshly.

Besides which, there actually have been books named after the word "book". And I know that at least one of them has been pretty popular. So what's the big deal?