Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Science and Philosophy, Part II: Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn objected to Popper's positivist approach to science. Although Popper set a high bar for what he regarded as "scientific," he nevertheless believed that humans can and do make steady progress in learning more about the world. Kuhn was more sceptical; he thought that the best we could do is come up with more and more sophisticated models of reality, without, however, approaching "truth" (knowledge of the Ding-an-sich, or what really lies behind our models).

Kuhn's inspiration was what he called "the Copernican revolution." Prior to Copernicus, Western astronomers since Ptolemy had worked out a very detailed model of how the planets, sun, and stars revolve around the earth. To make their model match observations, they had to add layers of complexity: celestial bodies not only moved in great circular orbits, but also sometimes in smaller orbits around a point in their major orbit (see the explanation and diagram at Wikipedia). Sometimes there were epicycles on epicycles. It was a messy model. Copernicus created his model of a heliocentric solar system partly because it allowed him to dispense with some of the complexity of the older Ptolemaic system. His model was no more accurate, but it appealed to him because it was simpler.

Kuhn described the shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican astronomy a "paradigm shift." It was not the result of a gradual improvement in science through falsification or any other such method, but a radical rethinking of the universe on new terms. To him, this proved that Popper's rigorous scientific method did not lead to an ever-closer approximation of the truth, but rather to ever more sophisticated models of reality. He compared these models to human evolution, which has seen homo sapiens evolve from primitive, simple forms to ever more complex forms; and yet humans are not evolving toward any particular end, just as scientific models are not evolving toward any particular truth.

I was with Kuhn up until the analogy with human evolution. For one thing, it is curious for him to point to scientific models as ever more complex, when one of his points with the Copernican revolution is that Copernicus's model was actually simpler than what it replaced. More important, while I see his point that scientific models are only models and not an actual representation of the Ding-an-sich, I find his analogy fundamentally flawed. Humans are not evolving toward any particular end, but science is not the same as evolution. It is true that Copernicus's paradigm of planets orbiting in circular patterns around the sun was not perfect, and would be subject to further revisions by later astronomers, notably Kepler's insight that orbits are elliptical.

On the other hand, there is something fundamentally right about Copernicus's idea. No one is ever going to discover that the earth really is the center of the universe after all, and that the planets and sun are really revolving around it while it remains stationary. They can't, because it is wrong. Neither is anyone going to demonstrate that Kepler was wrong and orbits are really circular rather than elliptical. Unlike evolution, scientific advances cannot travel down certain paths. We may lose knowledge, and people may be deceived for a time, but a scientific advance is not repealable in the logical sense.

I can't quite express my ideas in rigorous terms, because I know that it's possible for scientists to be mistaken; I can't, therefore, assert that science is always moving toward truth. On the other hand, I feel that there is a truth in Copernicus's ideas that go beyond mere modelling to represent what actually happens in the solar system better than the Ptolemaic system. I'm convinced, therefore, that Kuhn is wrong, without being able to come up with a complete theory of my own to replace his.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Science and Philosophy, Part I: Hume and Popper

I've been listening to a lecture series on philosophy recently, and, even though I haven't gotten past the Greeks yet, it has reminded me of a number of issues that trouble me about science. I want to take the opportunity to express my concerns here. Along the way, I will probably oversimplify philosophy a great deal -- not on purpose, but rather because I have only a simplistic understanding of it. I welcome responses to clear up my misconceptions.

One of my issues with science is the famous idea of Karl Popper that it can never establish positive claims, only falsify wrong ones. The history of this goes back to David Hume, the 18th century Scottish sceptic. He shook up the philosophical world by claiming that science could never prove anything through induction -- that is, drawing conclusions about physical laws based on observations. The classic illustration is the sun's rising. Even though the sun has risen every day for our whole lives, and for countless human lives past, we cannot therefore conclude that the sun will rise tomorrow. Popper took this a step further and argued that science can never prove anything. A thousand experiments that produce the same results do not prove that the next experiment would end up the same. On the other hand, one observation is sufficient to disprove a hypothesis. If we say that the sun comes up every morning, and we observe that it does for years in a row, we have not proven that it will rise tomorrow. On the other hand, if the sun does not rise one morning, our hypothesis has been proven wrong.

The true goal of science, according to Popper, is to produce falsifiable hypotheses that it can test. There is a lot of benefit in this method, as it tends to prevent speculation about unprovable ideas; and scientists have largely adopted Popper's ideas. In graduate school, for instance, I took a course on statistics. We learned methods to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation between two things that we can't measure directly. We don't know, for example, how individuals vote, but we know the vote breakdown by precinct. By comparing vote counts across precincts with different characteristics, we could infer a correlation between how people vote and things like how much money they made or what race they were.

Only, we weren't allowed to draw direct conclusions. Because of Popper's ideas, we could only deny the reverse of our conclusion. For instance, we could not say that people tend to vote for candidates of their own race; we would have to say that "we reject the hypothesis that people do not vote for candidates of their own race disproportionately."

I didn't see the point of this exercise at the time, and I continue not to see it today. I actually agree with Hume and Popper that induction can never demonstrate logically conclusive physical laws; only abstract principles like mathematics can do that. The Pythagorean Theorem is true, and it will always be true in all cases, and I have absolutely no concern that anyone is going to prove it wrong. Newton's laws of motion, however, were only true up to a point, and Einstein demonstrated the point at which they cease to be true.

The problem is that I don't see the correlation between these cases. Science aims to produce the best possible model of the universe. While some scientists may believe that they arrive at essential truths, I think most would acknowledge that they can never apprehend the "thing in itself" (Ding-an-sich, a Kantian term for the ultimate nature of a thing). That doesn't matter; they are not producing logically infallible models, but models that correspond closely with observed behaviour. They've done a good enough job that I cross a bridge without worrying, usually, about whether it will collapse, and I fly without worrying that the principles of aerodynamics are actually different that what scientists say they are and the plane will suddenly plummet to the earth.

Moreover, I fail to see how reducing everything to falsifiability assists the process of scientific inquiry (besides encouraging people to make testable claims, as I indicated above). We may observe millions of sheep and find them all to be various shades of black, white, or grey, but never purple. Popper is correct that we could not therefore infallibly conclude that sheep are never purple, but would the existence of a single purple sheep disprove our hypothesis? Perhaps there is something wrong with our observation -- maybe we were drunk, or maybe we were viewing the sheep through purple glasses, or in a purple light. Or maybe someone dyed the sheep purple. That would indeed falsify the idea that no sheep are purple, but it wouldn't falsify the idea that no sheep are born purple.

The idea of falsification seems even more dubious in the case of statistical studies, such as the ones mentioned above. Falsification is an extremely rigorous standard; by it, you are only allowed to make statements that are tautological, to the extent that you know (assuming your observations to be correct) that you are rejecting a false claim because you have seen something that directly refutes it. It works if you want to prove everything with the same certainty as the Pythagorean theorem. Statistical methods, however, are exactly the wrong kind of approach to use if you want falsifiability. You can never demonstrate with apodictic certainty that a statistical correlation matches a real causal relationship; you can only demonstrate that it is very unlikely to be false. But if you are dealing in the realm of probabilities, why use a method designed to grant a priori certainty? A statistical correlation of voting patterns shows that some aspect of voters is likely influence how they vote, never a 100% chance that it does. Why not phrase this in the positive form rather than the negative? And the same logic can be extended to cases where statistics are only used inferentially: if I have seen a million sheep from all parts of the world, and I have never seen a purple one, I am on a statistically sound basis if I assert that sheep are not purple. I can't prove that no one will ever see a purple sheep, but that doesn't stop my observation from being scientifically useful.

Perhaps Popper took some account of these concerns -- I don't pretend to be an expert in his thought. There are just the things that make me doubt the dogma of falsification as a useful tool, and I really doubt whether most scientists actually think in terms of falsification rather than positive assertions.

Next time, I will consider the scientific views of one of Popper's opponents, Thomas Kuhn.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Ho, ho, ho

Christmas carols: love them or hate them, it's hard to avoid them this time of year. I like carols, but I tend to prefer the older ones. Not that I have anything against adding to the canon, but there is something a little...I don't know, empty...about songs like "Winter Wonderland" and "There's No Place Like Home For the Holidays." I don't apply that to "Frosty the Snowman" or "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer," which strike just the right note for me.

My son is in his school's chorus, which means I've gotten to hear every Christmas song at each of his performances. One of the classics, a song I actually like, is "Up On the Rooftop." I like it, but I admit that I am puzzled by the refrain: "Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn't go?" Who wouldn't go where? Up on the rooftop? If that's what it means, it seems a weird question to ask. I think the composer just needed a rhyme there.

I found this cute photo at in a collection of ironic photographs. They are probably not "the 25 most ironic photos of all time," but some of them are pretty funny.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

One Hundred

When I began this blog about 6 months ago, I did not expect it would attract a large audience. My expectations have been fully met. The only exception came when Linkiest decided (at my request) to link to my blog post on liberal denial of media bias. That created a viewership spike that screwed up the graph on Google analytics, because it was totally off the scale.

In case some of those new viewers from Linkiest are still around, I figured the hundreth post would be a good time to highlight some of the most interesting previous blog entries. Here are my completely subjective choices:
  1. Etiology of a Medical Crisis
  2. The Nuclear Threat
  3. The Awful Truth
  4. Gates, Boxer, and Race
  5. Dumb Political Slogans
  6. Acorn Cracked
  7. Obama's Citizenship
  8. Peace of Westphalia Day
  9. Self-interest
  10. Environmental Pathos

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Economics in One Lesson

No wonder people don't trust economists. When people tell you that cap-and-trade will lead to job growth, it doesn't fit common sense. Of course, a new government program on this magnitude will certainly create jobs, exactly as claimed: "research and development in new technologies, new factories to produce solar panels and wind turbines, and energy-efficiency retrofits of commercial and residential real estate." But the question is, will it be a net increase in jobs? Because even the authors of this article admit that "some businesses that rely on dirty energy will be hurt." (Why not all of them? Are some of them getting permits for free?)

Things get the most confusing when they involve money, because money is a very slippery subject. According to the article cited above, "almost all of the revenue from the permit auction is returned to the American public." Therefore, even though the authors admit that energy prices will rise, they assert that "the refund can make up and even exceed the additional expenses for most Americans." Is that true? If so, we can make our economy infinitely cleaner simply by returning the costs paid by business back to consumers. Why tolerate any pollution at all?

Of course it's not true, as most people will recognize intuitively. To see why, let's take money out of the equation. Let's take out jobs, too, while we're at it. Our economy's productivity is not based on how much money we have or how many jobs it creates. Banks can print money without adding any value, and we can create jobs -- temporarily, at least -- by downgrading technology. If we outlawed the transport of goods by motor vehicles, there would be an explosion of jobs for people to portage goods on their backs, but no one would think this was good for the economy.

No, our economy's productivity is based on the goods and services that we get out of it, regardless of nominal prices or labor inputs. And the one thing we can be sure of is that changing to cleaner energy sources will require more inputs per unit of electricity -- in other words, we will have to work harder to get the same amount of juice. A new Berkeley study admits as much, although Barbara Boxer touts it as evidence that clean energy is a jobs producer (scroll down to "Barbara Boxer's Good News"). The problem is that the additional people and resources devoted to producing electricity will not be available to produce other things, like televisions, health care, and blogs. That's something that even liberals would not be happy about.

This is not to say that mandating cleaner energy is necessarily bad; clean air and water provide health benefits as well as intangible advantages. But they also, always, require tradeoffs. It would be best if our politicians acknowledged the tradeoffs openly rather than pretending that we can improve the environment for free.

The title of this post comes from Henry Hazlitt's wonderful book, still popular after all these years. And if more politicians would read it, they would not keep making the same mistakes.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Five words that you are probably mispronouncing

When I was in graduate school, I served as a teaching assistant for the lowest-ranking professor in the history department. He had never published anything, so his salary was unbelievably small -- under $30,000 in 1991. I heard him pronounce a few words strangely during his lectures, and I mistakenly jumped from his lowly position in the department to the belief that he must be wrong. I had to eat humble pie when I looked those words up in the dictionary and found out that he was right, contrary to almost everyone else I have heard say those words. Here they are, along with some others that I have been surprised to learn:
  • schism: ignore the "ch" in this word; it is pronounced "sism."
  • eschew: unlike schism, pronounce the "ch" firmly in this word; ess-chew.
  • long-lived: most people say this with a short "i" sound, like the verb, "to live." It should be a long "i." Think of it as "long-lifed," with the "f" changed to a "v." This makes sense when you think about other words that you might add "long-" in front of: long-legged, long-winded, long-eared. They are all nouns.
  • coitus: there is no "oy" sound in this word. It is co-itus, literally "going together."
  • dour: pronounced like "door"; it does not rhyme with "sour," despite appearances.
I'm not sure of the value of pronouncing words correctly. You might impress someone with your erudition, but it's more likely that he doesn't know the correct pronunciation, so he will think you are doing it wrong. I do it because, once I learn the right way, I can't bring myself to say it the wrong way; but I don't know that it does me, or anyone else, any good.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Offensive mascots

Thanksgiving started when pilgrims and Indians had a meal together in peace, so it seems like a good time to think about those who want to make Indians and white people hate each other. I am referring, of course, to the small but loud-mouthed minority who object to sports nicknames based on Indians.

(I know, I should say "Native Americans," but I think that is offensive since the name "American" comes from an Italian, so it's not really any better than Indian, is it? We should call them some Indian name, but since Indians spoke over 1000 languages, we could hardly hope to come up with one name that identified them all. So I will stick with Indian, because it is a lot less typing than Native American.)

The issue of Indian team names also comes up this time of year because the NCAA ruled in 2006 that no college can host a bowl game or an NCAA tournament game if they have an Indian team name or mascot that the NCAA deems "hostile or offensive." Apparently the NCAA, along with many liberals, is under the misapprehension that team names are created to "exploit" and "disrespect" their subjects. If all but a few teams used nicknames like the wildcats, tigers, and panthers, there might be a case that Indian names are disrespectful. But how, then, could one explain the use of state nicknames such as the North Carolina Tar Heels, Indiana Hoosiers, Oklahoma Sooners, or Tennessee Volunteers? Why would many schools adopt nicknames based on their field of study -- the Navy Midshipmen, the Purdue Boilermakers, the UTEP Miners, and Aggies at a number of agricultural schools? Why would religious schools often use religious themes when choosing their names and mascots: the Providence Friars, the Holy Cross Crusaders, the Siena Saints, the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops, even the Wake Forest Demon Deacons? I particularly like the fact that the University of Pennsylvania's teams are named the Quakers, since sports are competitive and often adopt war-like imagery, whereas Quakers are commonly pacifists. Strangely, I haven't heard of any Quakers complaining that their religion is being exploited or disrespected by Penn.

Some people try to draw a distinction between mascots that represent a college's origin and those chosen arbitrarily (see the Wikipedia article "Native American Mascot Controversy" for this and other arguments against Indian mascots). This may work for Louisiana Lafayette's "Ragin' Cajuns," but it is a complete flop for Notre Dame's Fighting Irish: as you might gather from the name, the school was founded by a Frenchman. Notre Dame may or may not have had a large Irish contingent prior to its naming (I have been unable to confirm this), but it is certain that another team, the Boston Celtics, has an Irish nickname with absolutely no basis in its founding or its players. The name "Celtics" was adopted, first, because of a successful prior basketball team with that name; and, second, because of the large number of Irish living in Boston.

In other words, the team's nickname was chosen not because of what the team represents, but because of what it thought its fans would identify with. Professional teams typically adopt names with strong local connotations, commonly an industry (Steelers, Pistons, Magic), but, in this case, a nationality. Similarly, college teams tend to adopt names associated with the college's type of education or with some local significance. That's why we have the Iowa State Cyclones, the Miami Hurricanes the Brooklyn Bridges, and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. It's also why we have the Florida State Seminoles, the Central Michigan Chippewas, the Utah Utes, the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and the San Diego State Aztecs. Other teams choose animal names, but, in all cases, they choose names that will excite pride among their players and their supporters. (Except for the UC-Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, but they are just weird.)

Another argument used against Indian nicknames is to point out the lack of black, Mexican, or Asian nicknames in sports. As one person wrote, "Could you imagine people mocking African Americans in black face at a game?” he said. 'Yet go to a game where there is a team with an Indian name and you will see fans with war paint on their faces. Is this not the equivalent to black face?'"

No, no it's not. A person wearing face paint at a sports event is not trying to mock Indians, but to indicate his identity with them. People dress up and put on face and body paint because they are proud of their school and want to show it; and it is not just teams with Indian mascots whose supporters paint themselves. But why Indian mascots and not other nationalities? The unfortunate truth is that Indians and whites have spent much of their history at war. Even at a hopeless techonological disadvantage, however, Indians fought bravely, and we still admire their courage and tenacity in face of the odds. There is no such history of blacks, Mexicans, or Asians in America -- so much the better for their survival, but so much the worse for their suitability as mascots. It is also interesting that, apart from Indian names, the most common racial names are celtic: in addition to the Fighting Irish and the Celtics, there are the Iona Gaels and the Wooster Fighting Scots. Like Indians, Celts have a tradition of being the underdog, and of fighting stubbornly even though outnumbered and outmanned.

Opponents also argue that mascots do not provide "realistic" and "positive" views of Indians. Mascots are not sociology books, so I don't expect them to give a very realistic impression; mostly they emphasize characteristics relevant to sports. Not all mascots are about positive stereotypes, either; Notre Dame's symbol shows a short Irishman ready for a donnybrook, and the Deacon of Wake Forest is a grumpy old man with a cane. Since Baptists are in as much danger of being stereotyped today as anyone, I would have expected them to complain about this if it were a bad thing. But the stereotype Indian mascot is overwhelmingly positive: brave, loyal, and steadfast. If anything, it seems that Indians are idealized, not denigrated, in team mascots. As for historical accuracy, if a mascot named after a particular tribe uses an incorrect costume or is otherwise inaccurate in its portrayal, I suspect that the college would be likely to correct the problems if the Indians wanted to point them out.

I am not completely insensitive to the idea that mascots could be offensive. Unlike some people, who think it is a fine thing to submerge a crucifix in urine or to spread elephant dung on a portrait of the Virgin Mary, I think society works best if we don't go out of our way to offend each other. Of course, no one has a right not to be offended, but I would certainly think twice about doing something offensive to others. That's why I consider it relevant that the vast majority of Indians are not offended by Indian team names. A Sports Illustrated poll in 2002 found that 83% of Indians favoured keeping Indian names on professional sports teams; even 67% of Indians living on reservations supported the use of Indian names. An Annenberg Public Policy poll from 2004 provided even more affirmative results: 91% of Indians approved a nickname that people commonly assume to be offensive, that of the Washington Redskins. The bounteous common sense of most Indians should shame liberal activists into silence. Here is Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, not only an Indian but director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Arizona:

"I don't see anything wrong with Indian nicknames as long as they're not meant to be derogatory. Some tribal schools on Arizona reservations use Indians as a nickname themselves. The Phoenix Indian High School's newspaper is The Redskin. I don't mind the tomahawk chop. It's all in good fun. This is sports, after all. In my living room, I'll be watching a Braves game and occasionally do the chop."

Several Indian tribes have officially endorsed the use of their names by colleges: the Utes (Utah), the Seminoles (Florida State), and the Chippewa (Central Michigan). But the fact that most Indians take mascots in the spirit in which they are intended is no deterrent to the activists who want to get rid of them. Central Michigan University recently held a forum "to discuss different views on the use of the nickname." Not only does this seem to be superfluous in light of the Chippewa's professed support (including financial backing to the school), it's also odd that the "different views" on the panel did not include a single representative in favour of keeping the name.

Obviously, some Indians are offended by Indian mascots. But why are non-Indians so anxious to end the use of Indian mascots? Doesn't the approval of most Indians suffice for them? Of course not; for them, the use of Indian mascots is bad, and it doesn't matter what Indians think. (See, for example, this article from the American Indian Sports Team Mascot website which disputes, not the Sports Illustrated poll itself, but its significance in the debate). If I were an Indian, I would be more offended by this patronizing attitude than by any mascot.

Personally, I am saddened by the loss of Indian team names and mascots. Who would have thought, a century ago, that white people today would probably proclaim "I am a Seminole" or "I am a Ute"? We can't bring back those who have died, but we can honour them by holding them up for emulation. This was the case with Chief Illiniwek, the mascot for the University of Illinois until 2007. As recently as 1995, the chief of the Peoria Tribe (the closest living descendants of the Illiniwek Confederacy), declared:

"To say that we are anything but proud to have these portrayals would be completely wrong. We are proud. We're proud that the University of Illinois, the flagship university of the state, a seat of learning, is drawing on that background of our having been there. And what more honor could they pay us?"

Another tribal elder, Ron Froman, said that protesters "don't speak for all Native Americans, and certainly not us." At some time in the next 5 years, however, Froman changed his views entirely; as chief of the Peoria in 2000, he led the council to pass a resolution calling for the retirement of the chief. Under pressure from the NCAA, the university stopped using the chief in 2007.

Pressure will undoubtedly increase on other schools, and, eventually, they may give in. The University of Iowa is among those pushing for a change, as it refuses to schedule non-conference games with teams that have Indian mascots. Ironically, the Iowa nickname, Hawkeyes, was itself derived from an Indian. A friend of Chief Black Hawk suggested the name in order to "...rescue from oblivian [sic] a momento [sic], at least of the name of the old chief." The university has buried the Indian origin of its name by adopting a hawk as its mascot. And so Indians are steadily removed from one of the last areas of public life that their memory and heritage are preserved.

[Check out an update here.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Psychology and conservatism

You may not think that psychology is likely to be of much use to conservatism as a movement, given that psychology is a soft science, and academics outside of the hard sciences are likely to espouse feel-good, politically correct ideas. I would have thought so myself, except that I accidentally stumbled upon the blogs at the Psychology Today site. I forget how I ended up there, but one of the first blogs I read was The Scientific Fundamentalist by Satoshi Kanazawa. I'm not a religious fundamentalist, but I can't help taking a title like "The Scientific Fundamentalist" as though the author had slapped me across the face with his gloves and dared me to a duel. Naturally, I couldn't resist reading some -- and I couldn't have been more surprised.

In a blog post provocatively entitled "How to Be Happy," Mr. Kanazawa offers this advice: "The best thing to do is to kill all the feminists and hippies and liberals." Why would this aid our happiness? Because, contrary to what feminists claim, men and women are very different, and "one of the ways that men and women are different is in what makes them happy." He explains, "Forget what feminists, hippies, and liberals have told you in the last half century. They are all lies based on political ideology and conviction, not on science. Contrary to what they may have told you, it is very unlikely that money, promotions, the corner office, social status, and political power will make women happy."

After a blog post like that, I naturally went on to read more of his stuff, such as Why modern feminism is illogical, unnecessary, and evil. It is fascinating stuff, and I think I would be fascinated even if I didn't find him convincing. Not everything he writes supports a conservative position, of course (although if we follow his advice and kill all the liberals, there won't be much opposition), but it all provocative. His current blogging subject is Why Do People Vote?, which concerns an interesting political problem from a psychological point of view.

There are more blogs at the Psychology Today site than anyone could possibly read. My sampling suggests that many of them are likely to be interesting; I've also discovered that Kanazawa is not the only psychologist whose conclusions support conservatism. Just today I came across a blog entry, The Danger of Self-Affirmation by William B. Swann, Jr., that points out the futility of our obsessive attempts to instill people with self-esteem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Three stages in liberal denial of media bias

I was 15 years old in 1984, and an avid follower of politics and the news. When Reagan was making his decision whether to run for re-election, I was opposed to it. It wasn't that I didn't like Reagan; I loved him. But I was convinced that he wouldn't stand a chance in the election, and I didn't want to see him lose. Of course, he went on to win one of the most lopsided elections in history. Why was I so wrong? Because I had been watching network news (the only kind, back then) and the coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

Since that time, I have watched with disbelief as liberals have criticized Fox News as unbalanced, culminating in the amazing spectacle of the president himself declaring that Fox is not a legitimate source of journalism. Meanwhile, these same liberals refuse to acknowledge that ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, CNN, etc. (ad nauseum) have any bias of their own. What makes this all the more incredible is that a number of studies have been produced demonstrating media bias in a scientific fashion: use of "extreme conservative" and "far right" vs. "extreme liberal" and "far left," describing liberals as "pragmatic" and conservatives as "ideological," citing self-identified liberal think-tanks as news sources, and so on. Even when the evidence is clearly against them, however, liberals refuse to admit that it is an issue.

My aim in this column is to outline the three modes of defense that liberals use against claims of media bias. I was inspired to this task by a recent article in Forbes. The article contains the results of yet another study demonstrating liberal media bias, but what interested me particularly were the comments. Because Forbes is a mainstream publication rather than a specifically conservative one, it has attracted a number of comments from liberals, where you can find the following defenses advanced:

It's all subjective

The first line of defense is to claim that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Conservatives think some outlets are biased liberal, liberals think some outlets are biased conservative, so who's to say which is right? For example, Todd Charske writes the following in the comments: "Opinions and words can be taken however you want. Fair and balanced I'm sure they think that but probably CNBC thinks the same thing. Strange world."

It's only unbalanced by American standards

The previous line of defense only works as long as you are willing to ignore the evidence, so liberals eventually fall back to a second defense: Sure, the news leans to the left, but that's only because America is so far to the right. Compared to the rest of the world, our news is actually to the right. I didn't see this argument used in the article's comments, but I heard an otherwise very intelligent history professor use it.

Journalism isn't supposed to be balanced

The idea that news in the United States should be held to the political norms of France, Sweden, Brazil, or North Korea is prima facie silly. Since there is no other way to defend the news as balanced, liberals instead offer that news is not supposed to be balanced; it's supposed to be right. Journalists favour liberal politicians because they are on the right side of the issues (and not lying crooks like conservatives). Here's user "mynameisjon" commenting on the Forbes article: "Here's the problem with the article and Fox's claim of fair and balanced in general:
Journalism doesn't have to be balanced. If one candidate is horrible, makes dozens of mistakes while making a damn fool of himself, then the coverage he gets is likely to be, and should be, predominately negative. Creating a sense of balance which doesn't naturalistically exist without prompting is creating a bias, no matter which way the scales tip. So to say Fox is more balanced because it was harder on Obama than the other networks doesn't show that Fox has more integrity, is more honest or has tougher journalistic standards. It only shows that they gave McCain a bigger pass and slung more mud at Obama than the other news outlets while ignoring the facts that were staring back at them. By failing to report on the McCain's missteps, time and again, they blurred the lines of reality in order to make their chosen candidate seem more appealing than the alternative."

Another user, "schmoe," put it more simply: "Let's suppose that Abraham Lincoln is running against Joseph Stalin. Would it be "fair" for a news network to post positive/negative coverage of each candidate equally? Of course not. Balanced, yes. Fair, no."

Finally, we are getting somewhere. Liberals who take this position are at least being honest, and, truth be told, I have no problem with journalism presenting a particular point of view. Everyone has his own ideas, and those ideas are bound to come out in journalism. Far better to make your point of view explicit than to try to sneak it in under the guise of neutrality. Besides, the idea of journalism promoting the best ideas is the only way I can see that we can excuse not covering Dennis Kucinich, Lyndon LaRouche, and David Duke to the same extent, and with the same neutral tone, that we cover sane politicians.

For many years, almost every newspaper in America was openly partisan, aligned clearly with one party or the other. It is only since World War II that objective, neutral journalism has become the ideal. I don't want to say that objective journalism is a bad idea. If we could have someone report on events without any bias, it would be nice -- although even then, the person would have to make decisions about which events warranted inclusion, and I don't think there's a completely objective way of determining that. What irritates me are journalists who claim to be the height of independence and neutrality when they are, in fact, more liberal than 95% of the population. Their reason for claiming neutrality is clear: it gives them certain privileges and respect as protectors of democracy, and it lends more credence to their partisan views.

Thankfully, the American people do not seem to be falling for this confidence game. They are very sceptical of network news, and are fleeing it for Fox in droves. In the end, therefore, the issue of liberal media bias doesn't concern me too much as a pratical issue. What does concern me is when the White House attempts to shut out Fox News because it is supposedly biased, or when Democrats talk about reviving the misnamed "Fairness Doctrine" with the idea of limiting conservative outlets such as talk radio -- and exempting the purportedly objective network news, of course.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama and Fort Hood

I wrote on Friday that I had not realized how oblivious many liberals were to the Islamic war -- their war against us, not ours against them -- until their reactions to the Fort Hood massacre came in. I have learned something that surprised me even more: that even senior Army commanders are oblivious to the war. I read a quotation from one that Fort Hood was a tragedy, but it would be an even greater tragedy if the army's diversity were lost as a result. I'm all for diversity in the army. I've known several devout Muslims, and I would trust them with my life. But would their exclusion from the military be a greater tragedy than 13 dead and 40 wounded? And how many other people who have died in the cause of diversity already, and will yet die in years to come? What is your definition of "tragedy," general?

In any case, I'm not arguing for the exclusion of all Muslims from the military. What I want, and what most Americans want, is some common sense on the part of the Army. I want them, and the FBI, to recognize that there are radical Muslims who want to kill Americans and overthrow our government; and when a Muslim declares openly that terrorists are right and Americans are wrong to be fighting them, they might want to classify that person as a radical and keep close eyes on him. If he's in the military, they might even want to expel him and to deny him a license to own firearms. That's the least they can do. People talk about an anti-Muslim backlash, but they are making a backlash more likely, not less, by failing to act against likely terrorists. If you were a soldier, how would you feel about serving near a radical Muslim? How would you feel if you lived next door to one?

Obama has said that he wants to make sure that the massacre at Fort Hood never happens again. That's great, but is he prepared to take the steps to ensure that? Is he going to acknowledge that there is a terrorist threat and take action against likely terrorists? Is he going to pursue the war against terrorist abroad with the vigour his predecessor did?

Obama is vulnerable on terrorism, politically speaking, because he has opposed almost everything the Bush administration did to fight it. The fact that Nidal Hasan was apparently operating in isolation gives him some breathing space -- had it been organized in conjunction with Al-Qaeda, it would hurt Obama a lot more. But there could be another terrorist attack at any time, a planned attack targeting civilians. If that happens, it seems likely that Obama will take a lot of the blame. How will he respond? Will he attempt to minimize the threat, or will he respond forcefully.

Honestly, I expect Obama would morph into a hawk in that case. He desperately wants peace with Islam, but his opinion could change in the event of a major terror attack during his watch. He has already disappointed his leftist supporters by moving cautiously on the release of Guatanamo Bay prisoners, moving slowly on withdrawing from Iraq, and retaining some of Bush's surveillance procedures. We can't know his true motivations, but one would presume that he thinks his actions are necessary for the security of our country. If that security were to be breached by a terrorist attack, I think he would revise his defense policies even further in the direction of safety over rapprochement. A strong response would also enhance his popularity, an even better reason to expect that route.

Monday, November 9, 2009

November 9th in German history

Today is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the crucial events in German history. Most people don't realize that November 9th was already an important day in German history prior to 1989. On this day in 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and the German republic was proclaimed. On this day in 1923, Hitler attempted a coup in Munich and was decisively defeated, the failed "Beer Hall Putsch." And on this day in 1938, Germans looted and burned Jewish stores and synagogues in what became known as Kristallnacht. Except for Kristallnacht, a pretty good day for Germany and Germans.

Of course, the significance of November 9th is coincidental. Many other major events in 20th century German history -- the outbreak of both world wars, Hitler's election, the Reichstag fire, the Berlin blockade, and the erection of the Berlin Wall -- happened on other days, and only Kaiser Wilhelm's abdication and the fall of the Berlin Wall would come up in importance to these other events (unless Kristallnacht is considered a crucial stage toward the Holocaust). Moreover, the date of the kaiser's abdication is fairly arbitrary, as it was just one stage in the process of creating a democratic government. The Allies would likely have given Germany some form of democracy anyway; and this government was not destined to last, so that it had to be rebuilt in 1945.

All the same, I love historical coincidences like this. It reminds me of my favourite of all time, also relating to German history: the Diet of Worms. It was during this meeting in 1521 that Martin Luther, prior to being condemned, issued his famous words: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen." There is nothing coincidental about the historical events, but the name "Diet of Worms" still makes me giggle inside whenever I hear it. The name "Worms" is a German corruption of a Latin corruption of a Celtic name, which has nothing to do with platyhelminthes, nematodes, or annelids. I once had a political theory professor (Dante Germino, author of an important textbook on political thought) who claimed that the name "Diet," as opposed to assembly, parliament, or some other term, was arbitrary, but I don't think he was right about that. An Imperial Diet is literally a Reichstag, or "Imperial Day," I presume from the fact that a particular day was designated for the Imperial estates to come together in a meeting; and "diet" comes from the Latin word for day, dies, recognizable in such terms as ante meridiem and diurnal. Therefore, nothing could be more natural than to call this assembly a diet; and nothing could be funnier than a Diet of Worms.

Even if the German events associated with November 9th are not as striking as they might at first appear, it is still a fascinating day for its other events, which include the Meiji Restoration, Napoleon's coup, Robert McNamara's appointment as the first president of Ford Motor Company not in the family, and Garry Kasparov's becoming the youngest world chapion in chess. Perhaps we will have more to say about this day next year.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fort Hood and Berlin

Obama was in the news for two things toward the end of last week: his reaction to the shootings at Fort Hood, and skipping Germany's celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some people are outraged about his non-appearance in Berlin. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it certainly does seem strange to me. Of course, the president can't go everywhere he is invited, but this does seem like a particularly strong case: Germany is a very powerful country, and one of our close allies; the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the seminal moments in German history in the past 50 years; and America was closely involved in the story of the Berlin Wall, both its erection and its destruction. I don't know why he would choose to miss a chance to celebrate the occasion. I'm sure the Cold War is not one of Obama's strong points; as someone pointed out, Obama was hobnobbing with Marxist professors at the time the Berlin Wall fell. Still, this was a no-cost opportunity to talk about the triumphs of freedom over tyranny and to strengthen relations with an important ally, and I don't see why he would miss it.

I occupy a similar sceptical position regarding Obama's response to the Fort Hood shootings. Some people are outraged that he began the announcement with some light-hearted comments about other events, including a shout-out to a colleague. (Remember when Sarah Palin gave a shout-out during her debate with Biden, and it was widely ridiculed? See, e.g., the fourth paragraph of this article. Funny how Obama is now doing it.) I don't feel strongly one way or another: on one hand, the moment was obviously serious; on the other, it doesn't seem too bad to get the less important things out of the way. Perhaps if I was there, I would have a stronger visceral sense of the rectitude (or lack thereof) of his actions.

What I don't understand so well is his warning not to jump to conclusions on the motive of the shootings before we have all the facts. In general, I agree that not jumping to conclusions is a good thing. Most major events are followed quickly by people journalists and opinion-makers jumping to drastic conclusions about their significance. After a close election in 2000, we heard that America was permanently divided; after Obama's victory in 2008, the Republican party was doomed; after the election last week, not so much. Everyone wants to make a big deal out of everything, because that is how you get attention. You don't get a lot of hits on a blog by making qualifications; you get them by making assertions.

Even so, I have to wonder, what was Obama afraid of? If some people do jump to conclusions, what then? Are there going to be riots in the streets and massacres of innocent Muslims in America? Almost certainly not -- if there weren't after 9/11, there very likely won't be any after Fort Hood. Perhaps Obama did not have enough information at that early stage to identify the motive himself, but I don't think he needed to urge people to caution. Moreover, now that the incident is well over and it is perfectly clear what the motive was, I think he needs to make a statement placing it in context. The problem is, I'm not sure he understands the context.

Until the Fort Hood shootings, I didn't realize how little liberals grasped the nature of our struggle against radical Islam. Sure, they opposed the Iraq war, but that was not primarily motivated by the conflict with terrorists. Sure, large numbers of Democrats think Bush was responsible for 9/11, which is scary, but a lot of people who aren't closely attuned to politics have nutty views, and I try not to worry about it too much. But I thought that most liberals realized that there were Muslims out to destroy our country; Muslims who preached against the United States and whipped people into a fury about us and even urged people to commit suicide to hurt us more effectively. Now there's a guy, a Palestinian Muslim, who not only opposed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but who actually said he supported the other side -- this guy shouts "Allahu akbar" and shoots nearly 50 people, and liberals are still, like Obama, not sure why he did it. Oh, Muslims shout Allahu akbar all the time, it doesn't have any particular meaning. Sure it doesn't. I have known some devout Muslims, and I have never heard them say Allahu akbar (or the translated equivalent); and while I wouldn't be surprised, or even particularly alarmed, if they did say it, I would certainly consider any subsequent action to be religiously motivated.

Come to think of it, this really does have a lot to do with the Berlin Wall, because, in both cases, liberals refused to recognize our enemies even when the enemies themselves declared themselves as such. They justified the "we will bury you" quotation as humourous or ironic, and they ignored or justified all the other explicit Communist statements about destroying capitalism; and now that radical Muslims are making very similar statements about the U.S., liberals are again examining the situation carefully and concluding that their attitude isn't somehow fundamentally hostile.

There's a book in the library in my children's school called "The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem." I'm not sure I would believe it was real if I hadn't seen it myself.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

More church names

I have written before about churches with strange names that seem to conceal their religion rather than reveal it. Today I received a flyer in the mail from another one, the Harmony Community Church. In the fine print, it says it is Southern Baptist, but nothing much else on the flyer would give you that idea. I'm also not too sure about the motto on the back of the flyer, "Family is everything...come be a part of ours." If you're a Southern Baptist, or any sort of Christian, it's pretty clear that family isn't everything. No doubt they are exaggerating in order to attract visitors, but it grates on me to see it expressed in such terms. Couldn't they have said, "Family is important," or even "Family is vital"? "Family is everything" sends the wrong message, in my opinion.

This reminds me of one of the first churches I attended after getting married, a Lutheran church in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. They gave us a refrigerator magnet with the motto, "There's a place for you!" Now, there should be a place for everyone in a Christian church, so in that sense the motto is perfectly reasonable. However, after attending the church, it seemed to me to be a hint that it was a church without strong beliefs; "Come join our church," it seemed to be saying, "we don't have any core dogmas!" Again, I recognize that there is room for a lot of flexibility in one's understanding of religion within a church, but there ought to be some uncontestable beliefs. When I read about one Anglican priest who didn't even believe that Christ had died for people's sins, I had to wonder why he wanted to be in the church at all.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Environmental pathos

I know that the big news of the day is yesterday's election. As a conservative, obviously I am happy at how things turned out. As a Virginian, I am excited that Virginia has elected a Republican for a change -- only the third since I began following politics in 1980. As an analyst, however, I have nothing new to add, so I will write about something else: environmentalism as a support system for the depressed.

I was excited recently to find a link to the following video, which I had seen back in May, but had been unable to locate a link since then (thanks to Linkiest):

Everyone ought to see this video to see what some environmentalists are like. As their name indicates, "Earth First!" is about "biocentrism," or "spiritual and visceral recognition of the intrinsic, sacred value of every living thing" -- plants on the same level as humans. Actually, as you can see in the video, "Earth First!" also values decidedly non-living things such as rocks, to which at least some of its members ascribe life.

What can one say about such beliefs? Would it be reasonable to describe them as geocentrism, since Earth (and not people) is obviously at the center? Would it be reasonable to describe it as a form of paganism, since it attributes spiritual value to plants and inanimate objects? I think that comes close, but I would guess (and it is only a guess) that a druid from Caesar's day who should happen upon these people would be even more puzzled by them than we are. The thing that strikes me most is that the people in the video are extemely sad and very much focussed on non-essential things. All life is valuable, but if you find yourself attaching as much spiritual meaning to a tree -- let alone a rock -- as you do to a human, you have gone seriously astray.

I love the internet for the chance it gives to view video clips like this, and like Jeremiah Wright's sermons, that people would never get otherwise. Conservatism has benefitted from new media in a number of ways: the existence of Fox as a counterpoint to broadcast news, and especially talk radio. On the other hand, it strikes me as interesting that I have never seen a real conservative take on the mock news show, à la Jon Stewart (or Saturday Night Live's versions before him). I was therefore happy to find "NewsBusted," a very brief but well-done news humour video from a conservative perspective:

It has been coming out at least since 2007; I'm sorry I didn't hear about it before.

"Policy Translated" is a conservative video with a different approach: the videos show an individual discussing a particular area of public policy, while subtitles translate the wonky talk into popular slang. I love these, but they haven't produced any new ones in a while, and I don't see any way to embed them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Speaking Truth From Power

President Obama's Senior Advisor recently announced that the administration was going to "speak truth to power." This is, of course, ridiculous, since the administration is power (although I recommend you read the linked article anyway, as it is amusing). I'm not going to focus on the obvious logic lapse in this incident, but rather the assumptions implicit in the idea of "speaking truth to power," because they underlie a great deal of liberal reasoning. It might seem contradictory that liberals support freedom for all manner of violent, abusive, and perverted speech while, at the same time, promoting speech codes on college campuses; but I will give them this much credit, that some liberals, at least, are aware of the paradox, and have an answer for it: the rules are different depending on whether you are in power or not. The poor and downtrodden are allowed to do almost anything because they are poor and downtrodden, and therefore don't have a fair chance to express their views on society. We have to let them bend the rules in order that they might be heard. And, by extension, liberals who support the downtrodden are allowed the same freedom.

Why is it okay for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to make derogatory comments about Jews, but not okay for whites to make comments about blacks (even completely innocent comments such as using the expression "catch a tiger by the toe")? Because whites are in power and blacks are out of power. Why is it okay for women to talk about men as Neanderthals, but not for men to make condescending comments about women? Because men are in power, and women are not. Why is it okay to submerge a crucifix in urine but not to make fun of Islam? Because Christians are in power and Muslims are not. Why is it okay for liberals to speak out against George Bush, even alluding to (or frankly recommending) assassination? Because Bush was in power.

Here we hit a stumbling block, because Bush is no longer in power, and Obama clearly is. The rationale for suspending the rules of rational discourse is over, and yet the desire remains. What is a liberal to do? One option is to embrace power and decide that it isn't so bad as long as a liberal is in charge. Therefore, anyone who opposes Obama is a hooligan, a racist, etc.; there are not only no liberties to be taken when speaking truth to power, but actually fewer liberties than those in power have to expound their ideas.

Some liberals have adopted this approach. However, it is difficult for many liberals to accept the idea of being in power. The whole idea behind liberalism, at least that branch of it going back to the 1960's (in which many current leaders were bred), is resistance to authority. Therefore, you get ironies like Valerie Jarrett, the senior Obama advisor referenced above, talking about "speaking truth to power." If one were to ask her to clarify what she meant, I bet she'd justify it by reference to the supposedly dominant white, male, Christian, conservative culture, as though the existence of a Democratic president and Congress meant nothing against the murky background of a vast, right-wing conspiracy. I expect to see more evidence of this sort of thought in the remainder of Obama's presidency.

I should add that I don't think liberals are entirely mistaken that the rules should be bent in certain circumstances. Women do get beaten by their husbands, a lot less now than historically, I would suspect, but it is still a problem; I think it is worth being more careful about not seeming to endorse wife-abuse than not endorsing husband-abuse, which I doubt seriously will ever be an endemic problem anywhere. Where I differ is that I believe the law is blind, and should not be changed to give preferential treatment to certain groups of people, even if historically oppressed; and free speech is free speech, regardless of how unpleasant. I put the burden on the private individuals and institutions in the country to promote civility; moreover, I call for civility from everyone, not just those historically or presently in power.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Elevating political discourse

I like to report on people doing the right thing, so I was happy to discover Megan Carpentier at Air America calling out Keith Olbermann for his pointless ad hominem attack on Michelle Malkin.

One can say a lot of things about Michelle Malkin's politics, her tactics, her strained relationship with reality and her commenters' propensity to embody the worst of the Internet. Or you could do what Keith Olbermann did...A liberal, progressive critique of Malkin need not and should not resort to an attack on her looks or her gender or rely on silly stereotypes or imagery that brings to mind victims of domestic violence.

If people on both sides would be more honest about criticizing each other for doing the wrong thing, the debate would be entirely more civil. Unfortunately, they are usually too busy circling the wagons to be willing to point out faults among others inside the defenses, and the ever-escalating rhetoric contributes to this sense of beleaguerment and us-against-them mentality. It takes courage to come out and say it isn't worth winning at the cost of losing one's honour, so kudos to Mrs. Carpentier for her essay. Her readers' comments show that, unfortunately, most people are more than willing to sling mud rather than to engage in debates.

On a similar vein, thanks to Sarah Palin for her gracious comments on Dede Scozzafa's withdrawal from the congressional race in New York. While I strongly support running more conservative Republican candidates over moderate ones, I agree with Newt Gingrich that there is no reason to run the moderates out of the party. Members of one wing of a party can take over from another, but they can only govern if they keep the party whole.

I wrote some time ago about content as the major factor differentiating country music from rock. Given that the content is overwhelmingly nationalist and Christian, it is easy to assume that country music listeners would be more likely to vote Republican than Democrat. Now someone has come along and done the research to prove it, and there is even more correlation than I had expected: the existence of country music stations is a highly predicitve of a region's voting pattern. While television, movies, and most music stations are on the liberal side, country music has become a major voice for conservatism in entertainment.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Peace of Westphalia Day

I'm excited about writing this blog entry because I get to spread the word that today is Peace of Westphalia Day. 361 years ago today, representatives gathered in the town of Münster signed two documents, the Treaty of Onsabrück and the Treaty of Münster, that ended the Thirty Years' War. Not many people celebrate this holiday in the way it deserves, with a full day off from work, lots of decadent food, and reading my books on the subject, but I think that will change once I get the word out and people start to realize what they are missing.

Okay, I might be a little biased on the subject. Hardly anyone knows what the Peace of Westphalia is or even what century it occurred in, which means I probably could have picked a better subject to pour my heart and soul into writing a book about. Heck, hardly anyone knows that October 24th is United Nations Day -- the U.N. charter was signed on this day in 1945 -- so I can hardly expect its predecessor by 300 years to catch on.

Someone recently asked me a good question: what is my favourite personality from the Peace of Westphalia? I had never considered that before. No one knows the negotiators, so my first thought was Blaise Pascal, who was active at the same time. Pascal really is a fascinating figure, but I later realized that I should have said Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin was the effective head of French government during the Congress of Westphalia while King Louis XIV was still a boy. Not many people know him, although I suspect a lot of people have heard of his predecessor, Cardinal Richelieu, who directed French government during the reign of Louis XIII. There wouldn't be much point in discussing Mazarin's politics, but he is an interesting figure in so many other ways.

For one thing, Mazarin was an Italian (originally Mazarini). Like Catherine de Medici, another Italian at the French court, he helped bring Italian culture to France; for instance, he put on the first opera in France in 1647. He collected art and books lavishly; his enormous book collection, which he bequeathed to the crown, became the foundation for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Until recently, his Parisian palace also housed most of the collection and the reading room for the library. A number of cultural artefacts carry his name, some of which I can trace to him for sure, others with less certainty. The first brilliant diamond cut is called the Mazarin cut. He is the namesake of the Mazarin desk (or bureau Mazarin). He owned a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed in Europe, which is also known as the Mazarin Bible. A famous piece of Japanese laquerware, the Mazarin Chest, probably derived from his collection. There is a shade of blue called mazarine. I once found a floor pattern named after him, but I can't find a reference to it now. My favourite Mazarin object is the Mazarin cake (or tort). It comes from Sweden, but it is not out of the question that it was named for the cardinal. France did have close relations with Sweden during his rule: Sweden was France's ally and co-signatory of the Peace of Westphalia. It was ruled, by the way, by Queen Christina, who is fascinating in her own right. I have no evidence connecting Mazarin with the cake of the same name, but really, how many people could it have been named after?

If you want to get a fictional view of Mazarin, you can read "Twenty Years' After," which is a sequel to "The Three Musketeers" that takes place during 1648 -- the same year as the Peace of Westphalia. Umberto Eco's book "The Island of the Day Before" also includes Mazarin as a character, although a minor one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The War on Fox

If you use Firefox, you should definitely get this Halloween theme. It is beautifully well-done, and gets me in the spirit for a holiday that I don't even particularly care much about. I look forward to this time of the year just so I can use this theme for a few weeks. There is also an excellent Christmas theme available.

I should probably be more upset by the White House's attempt to discredit Fox as a news agency, but in fact I find myself just shaking my head. No presidency has attempted to take on an entire news station, and I doubt if any attempted to take on a particular newspaper, either. And for good reason. First, in a country devoted to free speech, it is dangerous for a government institution to try to decide who is and who isn't authorized to deliver the news. Second, it seems unlikely to work, and may very well backfire. Third, it is pointless. News agencies are not sworn to neutrality. We went through a period of history when journalists claimed to deliver just the facts, and in fact they may have tried to do so for some of that time. In times past, however, newspapers were blatantly partisan and were often simply party organs, and the democracy survived. The increasingly wide divide between journalistic opinion and that of the majority of Americans has made the pretense of neutrality into a sham and then a farce. I'm not going to turn this into a debate on whether the "MSM" (mainstream media) are biased, but I will say this: whenever I have seen liberals confronted with objective evidence of media bias, their response is invariably, "Well, of course, that's because the American electorate is skewed so far to the right." You may or may not like the way Americans vote, but when one speaks of journalistic neutrality, one would expect the journalists to be neutral relative to the country that they are covering. American media may be middle-of-the-road by the standards of French or German politics, but that doesn't carry much significance when discussing their role in America.

The thing is, there is nothing wrong with having a point of view. My objection to network news is not that it is biased, but that it pretends to be neutral; my objection to Keith Olbermann and his ilk is that name-calling degrades political discourse. Polite but overtly partisan journals, such as The Nation and National Review, are considered seriously by people in the public sphere, and I presume they get treated with the same respect as Newsweek or other supposedly neutral magazines. They don't get the same privileges, because their audience is much smaller, but they still get treated like journalists.

Obama's attack on Fox (and Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck, and others) is surprising because it seems like such a fruitless venture. If George Bush had attacked MSNBC for its partisan politics, he would have had much more right to do so, but he would have been roundly criticized for it -- and rightly so. Even to try such a thing suggests to me the inexperience of Obama and his staff. Obama was treated with kid gloves during his election campaign, and now he apparently can't tolerate the thought that some people disagree with him. It is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for a politician to declare war on the news. It might be more sensible to pick on a single agency as Obama is doing, rather than criticizing the media in general à la Richard Nixon, but it is also more ominous. If he succeeds in driving Fox out of news, it will be a sad day for our democracy; if he doesn't, it will be a severe blow to his presidency.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Yellow has never seemed like much of a colour to me. It's more like off-white than a separate colour. I want to describe it as a dark white, but at the same time as a bright white. Are dark and bright opposites? I don't think so, because light blue is not bright; but I'm not really sure what bright means, unless it's perhaps "reflective."

This brings me to the question of what distinguishes yellow from gold (and grey from silver). I remembering wondering about this when I was a kid, because Crayola's 64-pack had separate colours for yellow and gold, but I couldn't figure out what mixture of paints would reproduce gold. The trick, I realized, was that gold-coloured crayons had a sparkly element in them that clearly distinguished them from yellow; ditto for silver vs. grey. In practice, gold seems to be a little darker than pure yellow, but that doesn't stop people from describing blond hair as "golden."

Yellow is one of the three primary "subtractive" colours. I first heard of the idea of subtractive colours while sitting next to someone from the printing industry on a flight to Europe. We had a lot of time to talk, and he wouldn't let me sleep, so I got to hear a lot about how printing is done. I was baffled by his description of how printing nowadays is subtractive: a page goes through the printer three times, each one "subtracting" a certain colour. I was envisioning a black page being lightened to white, and his description did nothing to clarify the process to me.

I understand now that "subtractive" is just a term for how we perceive colour in objects. The colour we see corresponds to the colour (wavelength) of light that is reflected back to us; the object absorbs all other colours. If we add all colours to an object, it absorbs all wavelengths of visible light, and therefore we perceive it as black. By "adding" colour, we have subtracted from the amount of reflected light.

This makes more sense if you think about a computer monitor (or a television), where we perceive the light directly. Each picture element actually contains three light sources, one in each of the primary colours. If no colour is on, the element is dark, i.e., black. If all colours are on full-strength, the element shows white light. In this case, when you add a colour, you bring it closer to white; on paper, if you add a colour, you bring it closer to black by subtracting from the reflected light.

Yellow is one of the three primary subtractive colours, but here's the strange thing: in additive colour (i.e., light), the primary colours are red, blue, and green. This is one of those asymmetries in the world that keeps me awake at night. It's like the problem of why objects in a mirror are reversed left to right, but not top to bottom; only I think I've solved that one, whereas I have no idea why the primary colours should be different in additive vs. subtractive colour. It would make far more sense to me if the primary additive colours were purple, orange, and green. I would still have no idea why they would be different, but I would have some hope of understanding it someday. To add to the confusion, the colour spectrum of light places yellow just where you would expect it, between orange and green, and green is between yellow and blue. It would seem perfectly logical that green is formed by combining yellow and blue, not that yellow is formed by combining green and blue. The whole thing is so crazy that I wouldn't believe it if someone told me; but you can actually try combining different colours of light and demonstrate that it is true.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

School fundraisers

You have probably seen the following on a bumper sticker: "It Will Be a Great Day When Our Schools Get all the Money They Need and the Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale to Buy a Bomber." (For information on the origins of this sentence, see here.) I don't see it as much as I once did; I'd like to think it's less common because it is such a fatuous sentiment that people see through it, but it is probably just the fact that it is too long to be really catchy, like "Make love, not war" or "Yes, We Can" (which are equally fatuous, but far more popular).

But I don't want to focus on the military side of the slogan; instead, I want to ask about the school side. Because the fact is that I am inundated with school fundraisers, and I'm really tired of them. My question is, just how much money does my children's school need, and why can't they get adequate funding through taxes? I realize that there is always a tension between government budgets and school needs; every part of the government, like every part of a corporation, wants more money than it gets. And I can understand that schools want to make up some of that difference by holding fundraisers. But schools today seem to be running permanent fundraisers, like politicians who never cease raising money for their next run for office, and I have to wonder just how serious their need for money is.

Our elementary school has participated in a major fundraiser for the last two years called the Boosterthon. It involves kids getting running laps, and getting pledges for each lap that they run. It promotes health, character, and all sorts of other good things, and it raised $18,000 this year for the school. I don't have too much to complain about it, except for the cult-like way it tries to get kids excited about raising money. As with other fundraising activities nowadays, there are prizes for kids who reach certain plateaux, so my kids came home excited about the wonderful prizes they could earn, and I don't really appreciate the way it has been sold to them.

One would think you could buy a lot of school supplies for $18,000, but the fundraising doesn't stop there. Almost every week, the school has an arrangement with some local restaurant in which a certain amount of proceeds from families that dine there goes to the school. They not only remind kids of this in school, but send them home with a sticker on their shirts so they won't forget. Naturally, kids get excited about the prospect of eating out, and parents are put in the position of taking them to the restaurant or disappointing expectations that have been built up in school.

That's not all. The school also sends home some postcards for magazine subscriptions that kids are supposed to send to relatives; there is a whole catalogue of school spirit-wear; t-shirts for field day; school pictures twice a year; at least two festivals per year where kids can pay to play games; the school sells lollipops (nutritious ones, of course) before school, and has a sale around Christmas time with small gifts kids can buy for family members. And on and on and on. The demands for money are virtually endless.

When I was growing up, I don't remember having any school fundraisers. I do remember selling lottery tickets for my baseball team, which brings up another point. My mom sold some tickets at work, but I also went door-to-door selling them in my neighbourhood. Nowadays, schools specifically tell students not to go door-to-door; it is completely up to the parents to sell them. While I'm just as happy not to have my kid selling things door-to-door, it isn't much of an improvement to have the responsibility pushed onto me.

What is all this money used for? The only references I can find in the school council minutes say they are for "school supplies." I remember one fundraiser in particular that mentioned the money was being used for a lunch for award-winning teachers. Otherwise, I can only guess. How much worse would our kids' education be if the school did not have this extra money? I don't know, but I would certainly like a chance to judge for myself whether the investment is worth it. Fundraising is like the school's underground economy: there is no accountability for the funds, and the pressure to donate comes through kids rather than direct appeals to parents. As a result, schools can soak up large amounts of extra money without anyone having any idea how benefician it is.

If the school really needs that extra money, I'm all for raising taxes to pay for it. If the biggest fundraiser of the year brings in $18,000, the amount of extra taxes would be minimal. Or, if the government can't or won't come up with the funds, the schools could send out a letter to all parents (or even all school-district residents) to explain their needs and to request additional funds. If they can't get the money through such a direct appeal, they should not be allowed to solicit funds by playing on parents' (and their relatives') guilt feelings.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Are red, yellow, and orange really "warm" colours? I remember learning about warm vs. cold colours in 1st grade, and I had absolutely no idea what the concept meant. The first thing that came to my mind was that blue must be a warm colour, since blue was my favourite colour. You can argue that yellow is warm because it is the colour of the sun and red because things turn "red-hot," but there are serious limitations to this claim. Fire is yellow, but it is also blue; items that get hotter than red-hot turn white-hot. Water and ice are commonly associated with blue and green, but they are really clear, and only appear in colour in certain circumstances. Maybe red, yellow, and orange share some common characteristic that we have arbitrarily designated "warmth," but I don't think it has anything to do with temperature.

Green is generally seen as a cool colour, even though it is a mixture of a warm and cool pigments. What is purple? I'm not sure I've ever heard it listed as warm or cool. I'm inclined to say it is cool, but since I obviously have no feel for this subject, you'd probably be better off assuming the opposite if you aren't sure.

Traditionally, of course, purple is the colour of nobility. The only purple dye in antiquity was obtained by extracting mucus from the murex sea snail, which was hard to find and expensive to process. I don't know why they couldn't mix red and blue, but I suppose there must have been reasons.

Purple is associated with girls these days. Some purples are, admittedly, extremely close to pink, but since purple is a mixture of red (i.e., dark pink) and blue, it doesn't seem like it should be particular to either sex. Wikipedia has a discussion of how purple is different than violet, but I have to admit that it totally escapes me. If we distinguish three primary colours, and if we distinguish green and orange as secondary colours created by mixing two primaries, why should distinguish more than one colour as the mixture of red and blue? I won't argue that there aren't good technical reasons, but, whatever they are, they are beyond my comprehension.

Some people are really into purple. I saw a magazine spread once on a woman whose whole house was purple -- purple paint, purple furniture, purple rugs, and she even served purple food (blueberries, chiefly). The names of purple shades -- fuchsia, mauve, lavender, lilac, amethyst, and periwinkle -- sound exotic, but most of them are just flowers. I always hated fuchsia until I learned how to spell it, but why is it pronounced so strangely? I don't know. The colour is named after the flower, which was named after the German botanist Fuchs (sort of rhymes with "books"); perhaps the person who named it also gave it the bizarre pronunciation. There is also a "fashion fuchsia" that is more like hot pink. The most interesting shade of purple, historically, is mauve (rhymes with grove). It was named in 1856 when William Henry Perkin discovered a residue from his attempts to create artificial quinine, and became commercially important as the first aniline dye -- the beginning of the chemical dye industry. The 1890's in America have been described as "The Mauve Decade," not only because the colour mauve was popular, but also as a derisive commentary on the pretensions of the era. The derogatory sense of mauve comes from James Whistler's dictum that "mauve is just pink trying to be purple."



Friday, October 16, 2009


Today is National Bosses' Day. That sounds like a great idea. Bosses make more than anyone else in the office, and spend all day telling people what to do. They need a special day for themselves. I'm not that crazy about Secretaries' Day, but at least it makes sense: secretaries do the menial work in an office every other day of the year, so having one day in which they get special treatment seems appropriate. I'm fortunate that my boss is very nice. I've heard that your relationship with your boss is the most important factor in job satisfaction, and I've been lucky that all but two of my bosses have been very easy to get along with. The other two weren't bad; they just weren't as good.

About hating: Liberals love the subject of hating. They accuse their opponents of it all the time. One of their biggest insults is to call someone a "hater." Of course, they are immune from hating -- or rather, anytime they hate it is justifiable, because they only hate bad people. Thus, Keith Olbermann can rail about Michelle Malkin's "fascistic hatred," and yet in the same breath call her "a big mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick." Very classy.

At Obama's town hall in New Orleans yesterday, a fourth-grader asked the final question: "Why do people hate you? They're supposed to love you. And God is love." Excellent point, young man. I'm sure you and the adult who put you up to that question love Obama, just as you loved George Bush when he was president. But what about other people?

I don't hate Obama. I don't like to hate anyone, because my religion tells me it is wrong. If I hate someone, it is a sign that my frustrations have gotten the best of me, and I prefer to be in control of my emotions.

Obama strikes me as someone who would be hard to hate in person. I heard a radio clip of him calling Kanye West a jackass for interrupting Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the Grammys, and I couldn't help liking him. It wasn't just what he said, but that deep voice of his, and the total sincerity with which he said it.

I don't really think politics is the place for putting personal emotions -- good or bad -- ahead of ideas. I wrote in a previous post about how David Brooks seems to have let Obama's personal features outweigh rational considerations. I'd like to be led by a charismatic person with whom I agree, but I'd rather be led by a jackass with whom I agree than a charismatic person with whom I disagree. Charisma is useful in a leader, even if I don't personally like him (because it makes him more effective), but it's more important to be led in the right direction.

I get frustrated with people like Olbermann (and there are many others like him) who talk out of both sides of their mouths, accusing their opponents of hating while at the same time spreading hatred. I'm frustrated, but I don't want to respond by hating them back. I try to look on them with pity instead. This is often justified in one sense, because people with that much anger in them are usually not very happy anyway. Whether justified or not, I think it's the best approach. Anger leads to more anger and ever-escalating distrust and contempt for one's political opponents. I don't know if the present state of discourse in America is any worse than it has been in the past (I doubt it), but it seems like it would be better if we could have our debates without the anger. It also seems like a good political strategy, because responding civilly to the other side's uncivil attacks might swing moderate voters.

I know that this line of argument can't be carried too far, however. Arguably there are some people whom one should work up a righteous anger about, people who threaten the existence of our democratic system. I would not include any politicians in that category; I'm thinking more of the terrorists who want to destroy us. And while being civil might garner swing voters, it might just sacrifice the enthusiasm of anger for no apparent gain, allowing one's opponents to win.

I'd like to think that's not the case, at least not if it's done right. And I'm just tired of all the extremist rhetoric that I hear, mostly from the left, although also, of course, from the right. So I will stake my position on civility; and, although I'm sure I will fail at my goal many times, I hope I will stick close to it, and do my tiny part to help bring political discourse out of the gutter.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hurricane Katrina lives on

I heard on the radio today that President Obama was in New Orleans, which has still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. (CNN article here.) I wouldn't expect it to be 100% recovered, but apparently a lot of it is still a disaster area. One of the questions that Obama fielded was, naturally, "Why hasn't the government done more?" Obama's responded by saying that he was working on improving things: "My expectation is that by the time that my term is over, you guys are going to look back and you're going to say, 'This was a responsive administration on health care, on housing, on education, that actually made sure the money flowed and that things got done the way they were supposed to get done."

I doubt whether any president can introduce drastic changes into any organization as large as FEMA. Because of the civil service system, 99% of its employees cannot be changed by the new administration. (I don't like to toss around percentages lightly. I found this article which shows FEMA having a projected employee count of almost 165,000 in 2003, and it is almost certainly higher now. I don't know exactly how many political appointees there are among those, but I doubt very seriously if it comes anywhere near 1650. Probably more like 16.) The result is an incredible institutional inertia that grips any large bureaucracy. I'm not saying that bureaucracies are bad, or that they can't be changed, but I am sceptical of how much they can be changed in four years by a few appointees at the top.

The whole Katrina story made me ill because of the way Bush was blamed for it. First, the hurricane was a natural disaster; and, no, global warming had nothing to do with it. For several years afterward, the national weather service predicted that hurricane season would be more severe than normal because of global warming, and they have been wrong every time -- in fact, hurricane seasons have been milder. It was just a coincidence that Katrina struck on Bush's watch rather than Obama's. In fact, it appears to have been a coincidence that it didn't strike at any time in the previous 30 years, since engineers had been anticipating a disaster for New Orleans for that length of time.

Second, I reiterate that I am dubious how much of FEMA's problems can realistically be assigned to the president. Yes, the president is head of the administration, but it is an enormous administration -- and FEMA is probably pretty far down on the list of priorities. Imagine how much worse it would be for a president if there were such incompetence in the military, the CIA, the FBI, the IRS...okay, maybe there is, but they're all higher priority than FEMA (at any time save a major natural disaster). What would you rather have, (a) a president who supported your political views but was a lousy administrator, or (b) one who opposed your views but who was an excellent administrator? Obviously the answer is (b) for over 50% of the country, because they voted for Obama in spite of the fact that he has virtually no record as an administrator. He might be excellent, but there is scarcely any evidence for that -- they wanted him because of his views. It may be possible to show that a president screwed up the administration of a particular organization, but you'll have to show me the evidence first; the mere fact that he is president is insufficient.

Third, governmental incompetence in response was even more pronounced at the (Democratically-controlled) state and local levels than at the federal level. We all know the stories about buses sitting unusued while people needed to be evacuated. It was appropriate for the federal government to intervene and assist the state, but the blame for problems has to be apportioned appropriately.

Fourth, the time for federal emergency relief is over. I don't know the details of how FEMA aid is administered, but the emergency in New Orleans is long past. It is not the government's business -- certainly not the federal government's business -- to rebuild private houses or even municipal buildings. If people want things rebuilt, they should do it themselves. Moreover, I think the government should make it clear that it will not assist in any future natural disasters in New Orleans, for the same reason that it is probably impossible to get private home insurance there: the risk is just too great. As much as I would hate to lose New Orleans as a national icon, I don't want to pay to keep it from becoming the next Atlantis.

Speaking of time passed, I am amazed and disappointed that New York still hasn't built anything on the site of the twin towers. (This comes to mind because the New Orleans mayor once responded to criticism about the slow rebuilding of his city by pointing to the hole still present in New York City.) This was not a natural disaster, but a foreign attack. And while I wouldn't usually support the government's involvement in rebuilding private structures, in this case I would have made it a point to erect two buildings, as big as if not bigger than the destroyed towers, as soon as possible after they were destroyed. It is a point of pride for the country, and a means of discouraging the attackers. The new buildings would not have to be private; the government could erect two office buildings, and I'm sure it could find some bureaucracy to house there.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I maintain a list of vocabulary words that I would like to learn. Among the hardest are words for colours, which are almost impossible to define in words. Sure, you can write "a dark grayish-brown," but will someone really be able to picture it in his mind?

Among my words are three shades of brown: fuscous, taupe (rhymes with "rope") and filemot (fill-mott). Fuscous and taupe both mean "brownish-grey," which gives them the distinction of combining the two most boring colours. If it came down to it, I think I would choose brown as even more boring than grey. It's the colour of dirt, after all, not to mention other natural substances like wood and, frequently, fur. It's also the colour you get when you mix all the other colours together. According to wikipedia, it's actually a mixture of red, orange, or yellow with black, but that's not the way I remember it when I played with fingerpaints, and it's not the colour my kids get when they mix together all colours of Playdoh (which they inevitably do, in spite of my admonitions that it will be more interesting if they keep them separate). Nothing screams "blah" like brown.

Nevertheless, we have many words for different shades of brown. There are common words, like khaki, tan, sandy (for light shades) or russet, chocolate, or auburn (for dark ones); obscure ones, like taupe, filemot, and sepia; and ones that those of us of a certain age remember from Crayola's 64-pack of crayons, like raw umber, burnt umber, and burnt sienna. Does anyone actually distinguish all these different colours? I'm not sure that khaki, tan, and sandy mean anything for me other than "light brown." For the record, here are some shades as defined by Wikipedia:

AuburnBeigeBronzeRaw umberBurnt sienna

Burnt umberChocolateCopperDesert sandKhaki

Sandy brownSepiaSiennaTanTaupe

Sepia is an interesting one. Portrait studios now offer you the opportunity to turn your beautiful, full-colour photographs into dull brown ones for an extra fee. If that doesn't sound like it makes sense, you understand my point of view. Making a photo sepia, or black and white (i.e., grey), makes it look older, but I'm not sure why that would be desirable outside of some specialist purposes (e.g., you wanted to pass the photo off as older). When you go to pick up your portraits, the studio will often have several extra sheets already made up that they will try to sell you; and, almost invariably, these sheets will be sepia or grey. Of all the nice things they can do with photographs nowadays, getting rid of the colour is not an "upgrade" that I would choose voluntarily.

I once knew a woman named Tawny, which is also shade of brown. I did a Google search for tawny to see what colour came up; unlike the other shades, this one turned up mostly pictures of women, usually showing a lot of skin. I don't know if the name Tawny is associated in the popular imagination with a certain type of woman; even if it isn't, would you want to name your daughter "brown"? It's much like the name Chloë, which means green – another strange thing to call a girl. At least Chloë is a pretty and exotic name, whereas Tawny is ordinary and sounds a little too close to "tawdry" for my tastes.

Brown as a last name is one of the most common in English. I'd bet it's more common than White, Black, or Green, and certainly than Blue. (The only person I've ever heard of named Blue was Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue, which is certainly one of the most curious names in sports.) I can't recall anyone with the last name of Red, Orange, Purple, Scarlett, Mustard, Plum, or any other colour, although I would be glad to hear of them if they exist. I'm not aware of a college with the name of any of these colours except brown, and there are two shades represented: Brown and Auburn. Surely it's a coincidence, but it is fitting that colleges should be named the same as a stoic colour reminiscent of old portraits and brick buildings.