Sunday, July 24, 2016

Evaluating purchases 2

Some more things that I bought, or received as gifts after asking for them, and how they worked out for me.

Fixr tool:  I have an unhealthy fixation with multitools.  Somehow, it seems like my life will get organized if only I have the right set of tools in my pocket.  Even if that is true, however, this tool isn't the one.  It looks awesome, and it is very solidly constructed.  The one weakness is the rotating gold part, which you have to move to get to the blade and the screwdrivers.  It was pretty tight at first, but quickly became loose and rotated in my pocket.  This left an exposed blade and made it snag on everything.  The screwdrivers are hard to use, even if you can get the rotating component to hold still, which you rarely can.  The "box opener" is the jagged part.  Seriously, it works if you push hard enough but it isn't very good.  The worst of all is the blade, which you'll notice tucked into the middle of the tool right above the word "rotate" in the picture above.  This blade might be useful for cutting a piece of string, but that's about it; it's far too enclosed to cut anything else.  About the only thing this tool looks like it would be good for is as a pry bar.

"Reading" glasses:  Even though I asked for these things, I have to admit that they looked like quite a gimmick at first.  These glasses are constructed with mirrors that allow you to see at a 90 degree angle, i.e. you can effectively see your feet with your eyes pointing straight ahead.  The advantage of this is that you can lie in a prone position, where you can normally only see the ceiling, and view things like television or books that are perpedicular to the bed.  They have an obvious use for people who have to lie prone for medical reasons, but they seem like they are otherwise fit chiefly for the lazy.  Actually, though, I've found them to be very useful.  I was getting to a point where sitting up was very hard on my back, and you pretty much can't read while lying on your stomach, so flat on my back was the only comfortable position.  These allow me to read a book or use a tablet easily.  The mirrors seem to magnify the image just a little, which makes it possible to read even though the book might be at a little greater distance than you would normally hold it.  About the only downside to these glasses is that there is nothing holding your eyes away from the clear plastic that you see through, so it is very easy to smudge them.  Probably it wouldn't be too hard to affix something to set your eyes back about 1/8".  Also, I lost the screw to one of the arms, and I found that regular glasses screws are much too small to use as a replacement.  I just stuck a short piece of wire through the arm to hold it in place.

Butter crock: I heard about these nifty devices from a friend at work.  You put water in the cylindrical part and then submerge the butter bell upside-down in it.  The advantage to this arrangement is that it keeps an airtight seal around the butter, so you can leave it on the table, where it stays soft, instead of keeping it in the refrigerator.  There are some caveats.  Butter does sometimes fall into the water, and you have to change the water every day or two or three.  Some people claim that you can just leave butter on the table in a regular butter dish for the same length of time, a claim I haven't tested.  I got this for my wife, who appreciates real butter instead of spreadable margarine, and she loves it.  It is a little high maintenance, but soft butter is a treat that everyone should experience.  I had forgotten how good butter was until I tried it with this.

Foaming soap dispenser:  I have read a number of complaints with this dispenser, but they don't relate to the central feature, which (for me) is that fact that it ejects foaming soap rather than liquid soap.  I find it much more pleasant to get foam into my hands than liquid soap, which is gooey and has to be worked into a lather.  Unfortunately, the ones we got did not come with instructions, so I didn't know how much water to add in with the soap.  At first I tried about a 1:1 ratio, which resulted in getting liquid soap for a few days before any foam came out.  I later read another dispenser's instructions that said to add water at a 5:1 ratio with soap.  It did not specify a need to shake the dispenser at any point, although I have tried this off and on when results were not satisfactory.  I don't know how these things work, but it seems to me that water and soap do not mix spontaneously, so you need to have a way to make sure both get into the pump.  Sometimes they do work, very nicely, and you get a rich later straight from the nozzle.  Other times, you get plain liquid soap (too thick) or a very watery foam that requires you to squirt several times before you have enough to wash your hands.  The latter was problematic for our dispenser because it didn't seem to have a good spring, so we practically had to pull the pump back up each time to get more out.  (It worked fine if you didn't use it for an hour.)  I have found them, on the whole, more trouble than they are worth.  It's not too hard to find a good container (although it's not trivial, either, as cheap plastic can be dressed up to look like anything), but getting a good pump seems to be nearly impossible, and I would gladly pay 2 or 3 times as much for one that would work consistently and not wear out for years.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Deaths by Terrorism vs. Other Means

Among those who do not support aggressive government reaction to the terrorist threat, a common argument is that terrorism is actually not much of a threat at all. After all, they point out, you are more likely to be killed in a car accident, to be shot, even to be shot by a toddler, than to die in a terrorist attack. (This argument is so well known that I'm not going to bother linking to instances of it, but they aren't hard to find if you don't believe me.)

As far as the death statistics go, they're not wrong. Even at the worst year, 2001, the number of deaths to terrorism was minuscule compared to almost any other cause, most of which (such as automobile accidents) we tolerate with hardly a word of protest. If its sole purpose was to save lives, the government could do far more good by increasing automobile safety regulations than by trying to stop terrorism.

The trouble, as anyone who stops to think about it for a few minutes realizes, is that it's not all about saving lives. Not because saving lives is unimportant, but rather because there is so much more to the consequences of terrorism than the number of deaths that result from it. For one thing, deaths to terrorism, while apparently random, are not accidental. We will never live in a world without accidental deaths, and I would argue that we already spend far too much effort trying to achieve that goal than we should. It is an entirely different matter when someone is trying to kill you. I get in my car every day knowing that I could be in a fatal accident, and I hardly think about it; but I would not walk at night in a dangerous part of a big city unless there really seemed to be no alternative. I am far more afraid of the possible existence of an individual who wants to do me in than I am by the probability of an accident.

Even that danger might become routine, and therefore less consciously threatening, if I had to live in such an area.  The things that people put up with to live in Beirut would appall anyone who grew up in America, but if that kind of violence became routine here, I have no doubt that we would learn to live with it.  The fact that terrorism on American soil is a relatively new threat makes it more frightening than it would otherwise be.

But these psychological explanations only hint at the greater significance of major acts of terrorism.  It is not the immediate consequences of an act such as 9/11 -- the dead bodies and destroyed buildings -- that cause such concern, but rather the significance of it as a signalling event.  America had been relatively safe from Islamic terrorism prior to that date; our sense of safety was shattered suddenly.  Again, it is the fact that it was an organized attack that made it more significant.  We knew that there was a movement in the Islamic world that viewed the United States as the Great Satan and wanted to harm us, and which had done harm repeatedly to other countries, including our European allies.  When members of that movement deliberately planned an attack on us, we assumed that it was the first of a series of attacks that they would make in the future.  By contrast, the Oklahoma City bombing, although equally shocking, was the work of one or two people without any coherent program (however unjustifiable).  There was no prospect of repeat attacks, and, indeed, there hasn't been anything similar.

These fears do not mean, of course, that our response was appropriate.  Leaving aside the issue of the resulting foreign wars, our efforts at domestic defense have been largely panicked and of dubious effectiveness.  I particularly thought that the hasty attempt to fix airline security was drastically overdone.

But the fact that we had such fears was, I believe, on the whole rational.  Again, not that I expected the death rate from terrorism to increase suddenly, but there were other consequences.  The stock market suffered its biggest one-day loss ever after remaining closed for 4 days.  Economic actors are particularly sensitive to disruption.  They depend on being able to calculate financial risk, which is only possible in a stable situation.  If people are suddenly afraid to fly, that throws all kinds of calculations out the window.  Tourist destinations suddenly expect to receive many fewer visitors than before, so any capital improvements they made previously become financial burdens rather than investments.  The airline industry, of course, suffered the biggest hit.  Any industry that depends on air freight -- which is to say, just about all of them -- are suddenly faced with higher than expected costs.  The 9/11 attacks were bound to have those consequences even if there was no reason to expect future attacks.  Given the context of the attacks, however, it seemed almost certain that we would face more attacks in the future.

This does provide some justification for aggressive government action.  It is important to signal that those in charge are going to do everything possible to keep things safe, even if the danger is illusory.  Not because they are particularly concerned about the possibility of a few extra terrorist deaths, but because they need to re-establish the conditions for normal economic calculation.  We have been very fortunate to have suffered few attacks since 9/11, and none on the same scale.  If we had, however, you can be sure that the economy would have suffered as a consequence.

The problem of how to deal with the terrorist threat is complicated, and I would be among the first to say that our government reacted badly in several respects, and continues to operate under faulty assumptions about the best approach.  One thing that is clear to me, however, is that we can't measure the importance of the attacks by the likelihood of a citizen's dying at the hands of terrorists.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Addendum to Critique of Practical Reason

I neglected to mention one central feature of the Critique of Practical Reason that bothers me quite a bit, namely, Kant's apparently boundless faith in the ability of reason to create a moral code. I am a strong believer in reason, and I hardly ever do anything without reflecting on it. However, I have also come to fear reason, because apparently reasonable conclusion can lead to ghastly results, such as eugenics. One could argue, of course, that true reason could never lead to anything so inhumane, but it would be impossible, I'm sure, to prove it with any degree of certainty. The whole field of morals is covered with uncertainty. Perhaps there is a refutation for every logical argument that leads to inhumane behaviour, but what if we can't find that refutation? What if we ourselves come to a morally reprehensible conclusion that appears to us, nevertheless, to be logically airtight? I refuse to be bound by such a conclusion. I think reason helps us do the right thing on many occasions when our emotions would lead us astray; I also think that our emotions can direct us toward moral behaviour when all reason seems to suggest the contrary. Perhaps, living after the 20th century, we have a different perspective on the limitations of reason than Kant did. After all, the atrocities of the French Revolution and the Communist movements of the 20th century were done in the name of reason, in obedience to "science." These were things that he could not have anticipated, and I don't criticize him for failing to see their possibility. Still, I think it is important to call attention to this limitation in his moral philosophy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Critique of Practical Reason

What is this "categorical imperative" that is associated with Kant? It is, simply, a moral rule that must be followed regardless of circumstances. Kant notes that philosophers and theologians have tended to start with the "summum bonum," or highest good, and derive morality from that: pursuing the summum bonum is good. The problem with that approach is that there is no way to tell what is good in any particular circumstance; it all depends on whether it would benefit the highest good. Kant believes that this undermines true morality. "Thou shalt not kill" should be a universal rule, and not something that you make exceptions for: well, it is Hitler, he will kill a lot of other people if we don't; it is in self-defense; etc. I can't say that Kant would endorse this particular rule, nor any other particular rule, because he remarkably avoids discussion of any specific moral laws in the whole book. Nevertheless, this is clearly the gist of what he is saying. If you have to stop and consider the circumstances before knowing if an action is moral or not, you're not using a true morality that is based on universal rules, but a circumstantial one that is based on whether the outcome of your actions.

 I have to admit that Kant's argument sounds convincing in the abstract. In practice, I can't imagine a rule so universal that I would want applied regardless of circumstances. If someone is trying to kill me or a member of my family, I wouldn't hesitate (morally, anyway) to kill that person in self-defense. I would consider it almost insanely immoral not to use whatever force was at hand to resist. And if killing is not a universal standard, it's hard to think of what else could be. I am reminded of St. Augustine's story (I can't remember which work, I think it was "City of God") of a woman who violates her chastity three times for good ends. They are all, if I recall correctly, related to saving her husband. So even Augustine, who recounts this story favourably, seems to think that rules are not absolute. You could say that there is an absolute rule to follow God, but unless you can distill it into a maxim that can be stated in universal terms, it will not suit Kant's requirements for the categorical imperative.

This book seems largely a follow-on to the "Critique of Pure Reason," where Kant brought up three "antinomies" of pure reason: the freedom of the will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. None of these, he felt, could be resolved satisfactorily by pure reason. Reason tells us that everything has a physical cause, so how can we have free will that initiates actions without a cause in the physical world? I found Hume's answer thoroughly unsatisfying: we don't have free will, but we act as though we do. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Kant's is much better in the end. He basically says that we must have free will because we feel that we do. In some cases he speaks of free will as a "postulate" of practical reason, i.e. we must base our behaviour around this principle even though we can't prove it through reason alone. But in other cases, he talks about the "proof" of free will, and even says that it is an "apodeictic certainty." I don't at all understand how he gets from one point to the other.

Kant then introduces the two antinomies of practical reason. If (as he supposes) we know we must follow moral rules, and we know we can never attain perfection in them, the only way the system makes sense is if we have an eternity to improve -- hence the immortality of the soul. Moreover, the highest good isn't just being moral, it must also include being happy. (He seems to infer this from the fact that everyone wants to be happy and acts to promote his own happiness.) But it would be a coincidence of cosmic magnitude if following moral rules happened to lead to personal happiness. The only way we can be sure of this is if someone is in charge of creation and dictated that morality and happiness would necessarily coincide -- hence the existence of God. I'm probably butchering his logic here, and to be honest I found it extremely difficult to following his reasoning in this part. I can understand how you might insist on going on these assumptions, but, again, Kant treats them as proofs, which doesn't make sense to me. I understand that they are "practical" rather than theoretical proofs, but the difference escapes me.

For a book that is basically abstract -- as I mentioned, he doesn't bring up any specific instances of rules that would apply to the categorical imperative, and he is mainly concerned with proving its necessity and its implications -- the "Critique of Practical Reason" has a surprisingly practical inclination in places. It contains an ongoing thread about how people other than philosophers approach moral issues, and the entire last section is devoted to a sort of pedagogy of morals. Kant believes that people have a developed innate sense of moral rules and that it is only necessary to direct them in the right way of thinking about them. The wrong way would be to emphasize heroic moral acts, particularly those involving self-sacrifice, such as rescuing people from a sinking ship. Such an act would have a moral element, but it would violate the basic principle of self-preservation to no purpose. Also, any public act would entail a degree of recognition that would be at odds with true moral feeling. Much better to emphasize private decisions that have nothing riding on them than the upholding of the moral code.

Kant devotes considerable effort to showing that moral rules followed for any other purpose than the mere fact that they are rules that we know in our reason we should obey would not have the same meaning. This means that doing something to avoid punishment is not really a moral act, so compulsion detracts from morality. Doing anything for our own benefit, whether public recognition, financial reward, or to get into heaven, would be equally "amoral." The only allowed justification is that we know rationally that we should follow the rule. While I follow his reasoning here, I have also become a quite practical person myself and I think the best way to promote good behaviour is to think of it as a personal benefit. If I can see the good things that will possibly derive to me from a moral action, it is much easier for me to perform that action. It might make the action itself less meritorious, but I should get credit for creating that desire in myself by emphasizing the positive side of moral behaviour and downplaying the negative consequences. I doubt Kant would agree with me, but then, what would he think about someone who emphasizes the negative consequences of his own moral decisions in order to increase the value of making the right decision? It seems implicit in rejecting the one that you would have to accept the other, but it seems equally obvious that, if everyone pursued the latter path, we would have a lot less moral action.