Jul 182002

A very sensible post on Zionism from Volokh/Non-Volokh. A highlight:

…as far as real politics is concerned, the best shouldn’t be the enemy of the good; we should support countries and governments not according to whether they conform exactly to an abstract ideal but according to whether they’re closer to the ideal than whatever else is on offer. By that standard, Israel as it is today is vastly superior to the alternatives, the best of a really iffy lot. To the extent Israel requires a tribal/nationalistic/religious/collectivistic mythology to maintain the will to defend itself against its enemies, well, that’s really sad, but possibly true.

To the extent it’s true, Zionism is acceptable (but nothing for me to get enthusiastic about), but only because as a side effect it promotes democracy, secularism, and individual freedom. (On this account, statements like the “Zionism = Racism” resolution of the 1970s are objectionable — not because they’re false, but because they lack perspective, applying a standard against Israel that applies equally well against most other countries in the area.)

Jul 162002

Once there was a bearded young dude with long “hippie” hair that reached to his shoulders, who hung out with street people and “easy” chicks…the dropouts of society. Even as a kid he was “different,” and in later life he was shunned by the Establishment types because of his weird clothes and working-class background. But he was popular with shy and trusting people, who followed him everywhere, even on long trips to the desert, because of his heavy raps about Love, Sharing, and other revolutionary concepts.

But not all of his raps were about the ups in life. He rapped straight ahead about the bummers, too. He was hip to the great hassles that were to go down in the land, and he didn’t cop out when it came to putting down hypocrites. His groupies were both guys and chicks, and they grooved to his magnetic vibes and his heavy, spaced-out eyes. They really got into it. When he split for the desert to get himself together, the straights ignored him, just another of those “oddballs” and “kooks” common to this hot, dry climate.

But one day the Establishment got uptight. The big bust came and he was hustled in front of a judge. One of his own people had gone over to the pigs. He was accused, tried, and found guilty.

Although still in his thirties, he was sentenced to be offed, and his groupies wept for him. His gig was short, but what he was laying down will not soon be forgotten, for this dude’s name was…

Charlie Manson.

(I only wish I wrote this. Doug Kenney did.)

Jul 162002

Read Part 1.

Five things I learned about fielding in baseball from reading Bill James’s new book Win Shares:

1. Defensive efficiency, the percentage of balls put into play that is turned into outs, defined, if we ignore the small peripherals, as total outs minus strikeouts divided by the total number of balls in play, accurately measures how well a team performs defensively. You might think that pitchers would influence this statistic. They don’t.

2. You can measure range for first basemen, but this requires not just assists, but unassisted putouts, which are usually made when he runs to the bag himself instead of flipping to the pitcher. You can approximate this second component by subtracting all of the other infielders’ assists from the first baseman’s total putouts.

3. Catcher fielding percentages are a lot more meaningful when you remove strikeouts, which absurdly bloat the catcher’s total chances and never should have been there in the first place.

4. Because fielding, unlike pitching or hitting, is a cooperative effort, it must be evaluated top down — first on the team level, and only then by assigning contributions to individuals. (James also argues that this is the best way to evaluate everything, but I’m sure he would agree that you can get a lot further with pitching and hitting by working from the bottom up.)

5. Fielding statistics, like many things, make a lot more sense in context. If Bill Mazeroski, who has the best all-time double play statistics of any second baseman, turned a lot of double plays, we need to figure out how many he had a chance to turn, and we can. If Richie Ashburn, who has the best all-time fielding statistics of any outfielder, caught a lot of fly balls, we need to figure out how many he had a chance to catch, and we can again. In fact Ashburn achieved them partly because he was in fact a superb defensive player, but mostly because the Phillies’ pitching staff in the 1950s gave up more fly balls than any other pitching staff ever, by far. For the same reason that team’s shortstop, Granny Hamner, has lousy fielding statistics, even though his defensive reputation was excellent. Mazeroski, on the other hand, had more or less the normal number of opportunities to turn double plays. He really was that good.

Maybe these things are obvious. But I didn’t think of them, and neither did you.

Jul 152002

There have been a couple interesting comments on animal rights, so I wanted to move them up and devote another post to it. Susanna Cornett writes:

Your argument doesn’t really advance anything. Some of the arguments in favor of Singer (see Jason Rylander’s, linked on my page) point out specifically that some animals appear to make moral choices — i.e. choices based on what’s “right” vs what’s “expedient” or safest for them. Often it’s associated with protecting someone/thing they have a connection to, which arguably could be instinct, but then you’d face the argument that perhaps the same behaviors are instinct on the human level too.

You skid perilously close to Singer on your discussion of humans with less sentience (the young and mentally disabled) by basically saying they do have fewer rights. Well, yes and no. They have narrow ranges of “permission” to do things in our society, but no less rights in the basic shelter-food-protection triad. Less sentient humans can’t be used for experimentation, for example, while animals can.

Jason Rylander does indeed assert (casually, and without evidence) that some animals are moral agents. However, this takes him off of Singer’s turf and on to mine. Singer draws the line at sentience because if he gets into an argument over whether animals are moral agents he’s going to lose. Stephen Wise, PETA’s latest pinup boy, whom Rylander cites favorably, is no more reasonable than Singer, only more slippery. He won’t say exactly what’s required for rights, so he talks around the point about shared DNA and “sense of self” and “cognition” and “deception” and many other characteristics that were once supposed, somewhere, by someone, to distinguish humans from animals. Many red herrings don’t add up to an argument.

A few hundred years ago everyone thought animals were moral agents, which is why dogs were hanged for killing cattle, and then no one did, and now some of us do again. But if we confine ourselves to the evidence we find that it’s pretty sketchy. The WaPo story on Wise that Rylander cites recycles this chestnut about Koko the signing gorilla. It is the only piece of evidence in the story that animals can distinguish right from wrong, and it deserves to be quoted in full:

Wise reports this conversation from the day after Koko bit a caretaker, and her trainer asked what she had done.

“Wrong wrong,” Koko signed with her large dark fingers.

“What wrong?” her trainer signed back.

“Bite,” signed Koko. “Sorry bite scratch.”

“Why bite?”

“Because mad,” signed Koko.

“Why mad?”

Koko signed, “Don’t know.”

Before I give the great apes their Emancipation Proclamation I’m going to need a little more than this.

And I may “skid perilously close to Singer” by maintaining what is obvious, that children and mental defectives have fewer rights than normal adults, but hey, it’s a controlled skid. My disagreement with Susanna stems from a different understanding of what rights are. Her reference to the “shelter-food-protection triad” pinpoints the difficulty. These are goods, acquired by labor, not rights. A right is a sphere of action within which the reasoning individual is permitted to act unmolested. The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to pursue happiness, not to acquire it. It seems apparent that the sphere of action is smaller, and thus the rights fewer, in the special cases of minors and morons.

Susanna does not object to my argument against animal cruelty laws (although she has defended them), but Norman Kabir does:

In the same argument you state that we are entitled to “rights” (very vague statement that you implicitly substitute with “law”) due to our moral agency. That moral agency separates us from other living things. And in turn gives us the right to torture or destroy them for any reasons we deem fit.

You don’t find it ironic that you use “moral agency” as a tool to sanction the infliction of pain and death on other lifeforms?

Oh right, property rights. I paid someone for it. That makes it ok. Who even needs moral agency when one can furnish a receipt?

Very principled indeed.

I trust I’ve cleared up some of my alleged vagueness about rights. But I deny that humans have “the right to torture or destroy [animals] for any reasons we deem fit.” I deplore pointless animal torture, who doesn’t? But it doesn’t matter to the animal whether it’s tortured in some vital experiment or because some sadistic creep likes to watch innocent creatures suffer. And it is very difficult to write a law against animal cruelty that will permit the former and forbid the latter. Such laws will inevitably used to harass medical researchers; indeed, they already are. If Norman, who supports medical research on animals, can figure a way out of this dilemma, I’ll be happy to hear it.

Jul 142002

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher who maintains that humans have no right to kill animals even for medical experiments, is a bad guy. He makes bad arguments, and he harbors a profound animus against capitalism and Western civilization that induces him to make bad arguments. But they are serious arguments, they must be answered seriously, and the blogosphere has failed, collectively, to answer them seriously.

Singer says, simply, that anything that feels pain has rights. Animals feel pain, therefore animals have rights. So we can’t experiment on them, or eat them, or make coats and shoes out of them.

Richard Posner argued in his dialogue with Singer last year in Slate that Singer’s views are so far at variance with ordinary moral intuitions that we are not obliged to take them seriously. This is of a piece with Dr. Johnson kicking the stone to refute Bishop Berkeley, and is no more impressive from Posner than it was from Johnson. I would find Susanna Cornett’s argument that animals don’t have rights because animals don’t have souls more convincing if I understood exactly what a soul was. (Insert joke here.) And to infer, as Jan Arild Snoen does, the falsity of the animal rights position from its intimate historical relations with fascism and reprehensible behavior of its exponents is a flagrant argumentum ad baculum.

But at least these are arguments. The more typical reaction has been invective. I sympathize, I really do, but this sort of thing gets us nowhere. (I thank Susanna for most of these links, even if I am giving her a hard time.)

Singer is wrong because sentience is not the standard for rights: moral agency is. Rights are the conditions that reasoning beings require to flourish. They are reciprocal because other reasoning beings require these same conditions. Animals have no rights because animals respect no rights, because nature is red in tooth and claw. This is why human beings who violate others’ rights forfeit their own: usually some of them, by imprisonment, or sometimes all of them, by execution, depending on the severity of the offense. A species will acquire rights when its representative asks for them — not because language is the standard, but because it’s as good a proxy as we have for the time being.

Minors and morons have some, but limited rights for the same reasons. They do not fully understand moral agency. When children reach a certain somewhat arbitrary age, they graduate as full moral agents, with concommitant obligations and privileges. Mental defectives have rights exactly as far as they are able to understand the rights of others and act as moral agents. They had to shoot Lenny in Of Mice and Men, remember?

Finally, many people who despise Singer rush to defend the laws against animal cruelty as a way of proving their bona fides. Folks, these laws are a baaad idea. Experiments on animals are cruel, there’s no getting around it — useful, indispensable, but cruel. Today the animal cruelty laws are used against people who turn pit bulls into killers, tomorrow they’ll be used against animal researchers; just as RICO was first used against mobsters, then against stockbrokers. It’s just as cruel to test cosmetics on a lab animal as it is to test them on my pet cat. The only principled, legally sustainable distinction is that my pet cat belongs to me, and the lab cats belong to the lab.

Jul 132002

I was listening to Wish You Were Here for probably the 457th time the other day when I suddenly realized I didn’t understand it. I quote, for late arrivals from Venus:

So, do you think you can tell
Heaven from hell,
Blue skies from pain?
Can you tell a green field
From a cold steel rail?
A smile from a veil?
Do you think you can tell?

I follow so far. But the Floyd continues:

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
A walk-on part in the war
For a lead role in a cage?

Charting this up, we have:

hot ashes
hot air
cold comfort
walk-on part in the war
New Item
cool breeze
lead role in a cage

How come I understood this the first 456 times?

Jul 122002

Mac vs. PC, not that other war. Den Beste already has an excellent post on what silly zealots the Mac cultists are, Jason Rubenstein explains why the whole argument is stupid, and Jane Galt chips in a few snide remarks about Apple’s ridiculous new ad campaign. I have nothing to add on those points. Instead I want to examine the historical origins of this conflict.

Part of it is the Jobs Cult of Personality (at Apple they used to call it the Jobs Reality Distortion Field), to which the Darth Vaderish aspects of his chief rival also contribute. Jobs used to say that the problem with Microsoft is that “they have no taste,” which is it in a nutshell. You can use a Mac like all the other different-thinking artsy-fartsy cool dudes and dudettes, or you can use Windows like a square-toed troglodyte Dockers-wearing lame-ass corporate suckbutt. Who do you want to be? Me neither. (Full Disclosure: I run a Linux server, because it’s good for serving web sites securely, and Windows 2000 desktop machine at home right now. But my first few computers were Macintoshes, and I quite liked them.) The Mac cult, like many cults, had a kernel of truth in it. For a long time the Mac OS and Windows really were different. One had a Finder, the other didn’t. One had a cute little trash can (that bulged when you threw stuff away!), the other didn’t. One had easily moveable overlapping windows, the other didn’t. One looked good, the other didn’t. For ordinary users Macs were better, once.

Then Windows 95 came along, with overlapping windows, and a pseudo-Finder, and a trash can on the desktop, even if it didn’t bulge when it had stuff in it. It still crashed all the time, but so did the Mac. But for ordinary users there wasn’t much to choose then, and seven years later there still isn’t.

Why, then, does the cult persist? My theory has to do with the history of computer science itself, which has been punctuated by, has in fact almost entirely consisted of, religious wars. One of the first famous comp sci flame wars was begun by the great Edsger Dijkstra, in 1968, with the classic Go to Statement Considered Harmful. Dijkstra actually argued that gotos were overused, not that they should be uniformly proscribed. But the flames flew: gotos made certain loops easier to read; what about error blocks? and on and on. Computer scientists gripe about Dijkstra’s paper to this day. And since gotos it’s been one war after another: compiled languages vs. interpreted languages, weak typing vs. strong typing, procedural programming vs. object-oriented programming, Waterfall vs. Extreme Programming vs. Scrum vs. Objectory vs. Booch, C++ vs. Java, every flavor of UNIX vs. every other flavor, .NET vs. J2EE.

This characterizes all immature fields, because nobody knows anything. We don’t have religious wars over how to build internal combustion engines because we know how to build them. But nobody knows anything about how computer languages are supposed to work, and nobody knows anything about user interfaces either. Few people can opine about the relative merits of single or multiple inheritance; but everyone who uses a computer can opine on the interface, and everyone does. End-user squabbles over interface are largely the trickle-down effect of geek squabbles over everything else. And since we geeks don’t know a hell of a lot more now than we did in 1968, expect the wars to go on for a good while yet.

Jul 122002

Meditation on Statistical Method

Plato, despair!
We prove by norms
How numbers bear
Empiric forms,

How random wrong
Will average right
If time be long
And error slight;

But in our hearts
Curves and departs
To infinity.

Error is boundless.
Nor hope nor doubt,
Though both be groundless,
Will average out.

–J.V. Cunningham