Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Review of Mary Midgley's The Myths We Live By

Mary Midgley's The Myths we Live by is a series of tirades against things that Midgley doesn't like. That is of course not to say that it is a series of unconnected tirades. There is much coherence among them leading essentially to some form of flaky holism about people, animals, and the earth.

Early on she complains that there is a sort of intellectual imperialism (everything for her, mind you , is an "imperialism") favoring the "method over the aim" of the activity. (p13) She claims we fetishize some particular type of reasoning, and favor it over the substance and the conclusion we are supposed to want. And she makes sure she doesn't fall in to the same trap by avoiding any form or reasoning altogether. Ignoring reason, of course leaves us with her opinion, which is completely uninteresting. Any smelly hippy can tell you the same thing she does, and be more amusing too.

She starts ranting about how the social contract is not sufficiently inclusive of animals, as if we should have asked if they wanted to join any government we formed, and more or less faults us for not having them at America's constitutional convention as signatories. From there the book is down hill with loads of rants about how scientists who are insufficiently spiritual describe the world in these mechanistic terms and somehow miss some main points. There are the obligatory anti-reductionism chapters, anti-behaviorism chapters (as if people still believe in that), and discussion of what she calls a megalomaiacial materialism. Memes too are singled out for scorn for some reason.

I found one piece particularly interesting. After making a long complex (and very shallow) case for the fact that pigs and Gaia are as morally relevant as humans, she spends a chapter defending the practical contingency that we sometimes might have to thin some herds and cull the herds. She claims that she is not ashamed to advocate killing off some animals, or even forcibly inducing birth-control measures on animal populations. I would be very surprised if she would, in the name of any sort of equality, advocate doing this for humans too. I strongly suspect that there is no way she can even believe the drivel she spouts when talking about how alike baboons are to humans, unless she thinks that it might be a good idea to sometimes kill of whole cities of humans because we are trying to save humanity or the environment.

I was bored by this superficial discussion of pop earthy touchy feely animal loving tree hugging nonsense.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Sad News

Stanislaw Lem dies. His science fiction writing always held deep philosophical themes, and he left over a fascinating body of work.

I first read his short Story "The Extraordinary Hotel, or the Thousand and First Journey of Ion the Quiet" many years ago is an odd obscure book Stories About Sets. Then Dennett and Hofstadter anthologized some stuff in their The Mind's I from his Cyberiad.

Any anthology on fiction and mathematics, or science fiction and philosophy will have stories of his. His famous work "Solaris" is in a number of collections. His novels are also good, as as I recently discovered. The world lost a brilliant author.

My Environment

Oddly enough I find myself agreeing with Al Gore and David Blood. After God-knows how much thinking and writing on the topic, we discover that when he teams up with someone who understands how money works, he can come up with the same answer that everyone else came up with many years ago. Any tax designed to internalize externalities is what the market needs. The concept of a Pigouvian Tax is neither new nor innovative, and if only people like Al Gore would start off advocating for things like this instead of wasting years spouting boring boiler plate nonesense the world would be a better place.

The basic idea which seems so American, it is amazing that we can't get it to work, is that there are some resources, like air, water, and stuff we take out of the ground, that belong to everyone. The air is my air, as much as it is anyone else's. So when you destroy it, like when you pollute, you are in part destroying MY air. So, when you destroy MY air, you pay me a little. Sounds reasonable? Sounds American, no? So for some reason Democrats wasted years telling us that the only solution is to have bigger governments and more regulation, and on and on. If we make people pay for pollution they have to make a chioce, is it worth it or not? So people have a strong disincentive to pollute, and it only happens when it is really worth it.

Democrats (and liberals in general) spent so much time thinking of the environment not as MINE and YOURS, but rather as the domain of governments and the world (and not the people in it), that they spent way too much time trying to figure out what treaty to sign instead of how to find a workable solution to the problem. It is about time that Gore saw that big government approaches to these problems are never going to work in this town.

That was also one of the big disapointments of the early Bush era. I did not shed any tears when the US did not sign the Kyoto Protocols on climate change because the whole thing seemed pretty useless to me. However, I did expect to see the administration to come up with something better, which they failed to do. There was no small-government solution or anything of the sort.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


There are actually people stupid enough to fall for this marketing gimmick. (Mind you that the KSA kosher symbol is not on the cans, only on the boxes, and there is a warning not to drink more than 24 oz per 24 hour period. I guess you CAN have too much holiness in your life.)

Thursday, March 23, 2006


I guess hakarat hatov is not a very Christian virtue. In any case, it isn't for these Christians.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Review of Ken Goldberg's Peter Squared

Ken Goldberg’s novel Peter Squared is an interesting read. It is about Peter Branstill who is a 43-year old mathematically obsessed accountant. He is (in lay terms what sounds like an) obsessive compulsive, neurtotic guy who we would all say should be in therapy, or given something to help him with his condition. He is a man with no friends, no emotional life, and who thinks that it would be a great idea to try to make friends at the peep shows he frequents, and masturbates frequently while fantasizing about horses. He calculates the days he has been sane, and calculates most everything, actually, including the dirt of which he is deathly afraid. He meets a guy named John and they become friends in an odd sort of way, though it is not clear that Peter ever actually says a word to John.

This book says a lot about clinical research and what it might be like to be someone like Peter. If you plan on going in to clinical psychology, it is worth reading. As a novel it is OK, but I kinda liked it.

I happen to have the press release that came from the book’s publicist. It is the dumbest thing I ever read. It claims that the author’s treatment is a “humanistic, existential viewpoint of the mental health system”. What the hell is an existential viewpoint of a mental health system? Apparently there are also unorthodox views on religion and morality in the book.

There are suggested questions that you might want to ask Ken Goldberg, the author, should you ever be interviewing him and was not really in the mood to spend the two hours actually reading the book. (Keeping in mind that the book came out in 2000) here are some of the questions: “. . . To what degree is your work autobiographical?” (I do not want to know how autobiographical one is being when he talks a lot about sexual fantasies involving horses.) “We have a president who apparently feels torn between his sexual drive and his moral code. What is your take on whether Clinton lied when he denied having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky?” (As if there is a “take” on whether he lied. The real question is whether or not we should care if he lied during a sexual harassment suit, and if presidents should be dealing with this. Moreover, Clinton was not torn between anything and anything else. He wanted to not embarrass himself and the office of the presidency; that is why he lied.) “How do you feel about pornography as entertainment for adults?” (I hope Goldberg had a clever and creative answer for this one. It is the dullest question there.)

I wonder how many of these “interviews” he attended. No wonder interviewers appear so mindless. They are not quite sure what they are saying. They just read questions made up for them by a publicist.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

There are two erors in the title of this post

What are they?

Review of Pears' What is Knowledge?

To see how much the field of epistemology has changed since the 1960’s one need only read an introductory book written some 35 years ago. David Pears’ What is Knowledge? is such a book. Pears once remarked to me about the book that when he wrote it he had not yet known of the Gettier paper. (The Gettier piece was 8 years old when Pears’ book was published, though back then this is excusable perhaps.) Thus the book was obsolete as it was being written.

Since the Gettier piece epistemology has redrawn its priorities. While the problem of perception is still an issue, much of the field has been co-opted by cognitive science. The question of what "knowing" is has been clarified by Gettier, and thus much of the writing and analysis done before him (or in Pears’ case after him) looks like epistemologists flailing about trying to come up with clear definitions. Like Ayer who spoke of "the right to be sure" many of this period spoke of "confidence" and the like. The fact that they didn’t have the benefit of Kripke’s clearing up a prioricity, certainty, analyticity, and necessity, didn’t help either.

It was an interesting look at epistemology in the 60’s though. Locke, Hume and Berkeley still held center stage; while much else was questions that epistemologist did not quite know how to ask.

On a technical side, why didn’t they all give names to the chapters back then? "I" and "VI" are not at all informative. An index would have been nice too.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Review of Don Foster's Author Unknown

Don Foster's Author Unkown charts various literary sleuthing adventures. As some of you may recall, Foster was the one who discovered that Joe Klein from Newsweek was the author of Primary Colors, the novel about the Clinton campaign trail. He picks some stories which he was involved in, some interesting, others. . . not so much. His doctoral dissertation was on a poem "A Funeral Elegy" by one W.S., which he proved, I think, was Shakespeare. He takes us through the Unabomber, the talking points memo of Monica Lewinsky, and some kook who some other kook was Thomas Pynchon. Most interestingly he establishes the real authorship of the poem "The Night Before Christmas" always attributed to Clement Clarke Moore.

His goal is to show that it is possible to obtain the authorship of some texts even if the author is and wants to remain anonomous.

Most of these make for very interesting tales. The last one about the Christmas story was pretty interesting, the one about the Unabomber really displayed the methodology better, and the Pynchon one I thought was pretty boring. But all in all it was a good read.

I think that the book would have been better if it contained a lot more of the methodology behind all of his work. There is a real sophistication behing stylometric analyses of literary texts, and I would have liked to see more of it. But this book was a good taste of how it worked, and it was fairly enjoyable.

Update So I was trying to think about whether there is an easy way to mask one's writing so that it is immune to this sort of challenge. There are a number of things I can think of. First, use spell-check. Then dileberately mispell random words. Second, run your text through a translation program. Say translate it from English to French. Make sure it is a language you don't know. Then run the French through another translation pogram that will convert it back to English. Do not use only one translation package. Then just fix up the text to make sure your meaning is intact. Finally, remove all punctuation, and just put back the essential bits.

I tried it for the review that I wrote, and here is the result:

Don Foster's Author Unkown tracks various adventures of literary investigations. As some of you can recall, Don Foster was one which discovred that Joe Klein of Newsweek was the author of Primary Colours, the novel of the track of campaigning of Clinton. It chooses some stories which were interesting, others. . not so much. Foster's doctoral thesis was on a poem "a Funeral Elegy" by W.S, which proved, I think, was Shakespeare. It takes us to the Unabomber, the famoust note of Monica Lewinsky, and some kook that some other kook thought was Thomas Pynchon. The most interesting was it establishes the true authorship of the poem " the Night Before Christmas" Always allotted to Clarke Clément Moore. Its goal will be obliged to show that it is possible to obtain the paternity of some texts even if the author is and wants to remain anonomous. The majority of those make for the very interesting tales. The last one of the history of Christmas was pretty interesting, one of Unabomber really demonstrated the methodology, and Pynchon one I think was pretty annoying. But overall it was goood read. I think that the book would have been better if it contained much more methodology behind all its work. There is true a sophistication in stylometric analyses of literary texts, and I would have liked to see more of it. But this book was a good taste of how it worked, and it was rather pleasant.